Editor George Horace Lorimer accepted Sinclair Lewis’s short story “Nature, Inc.” from The Saturday Evening Post’s “slush pile” of manuscripts in 1915 and began a prolific relationship between the satirical author and the magazine. Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) brought this kinship to a screeching halt due to its critique of business and the middle class. Lorimer wrote an unkind review of the book, and Lewis was left out of the Post for years to come.
Lewis’s story “The Shadowy Glass” observes family dynamics and working women through his signature lens of economic troubles and unfulfilled expectations. The trope of a meddling mother-in-law is surprisingly reversed in one of the author’s most poignant stories about love and money.
Published on June 22, 1918
The wallpaper in Lelia’s bedroom was cream-colored — a cream soured and streaky — with a pattern of ingeniously hideous chrysanthemums in faded red. The brown woodwork was grained in a cheap paint, which had cracked into thousands of jagged squares. The iron bedstead shouldered a large, costly, intolerant bureau of black walnut. No amount of window opening ever got rid of the stale smell of soap and musty linen. Lelia always compared this thin odor with the drained light of the sunless room.
The only sign of breathing life was Lelia, at the window. She was a winged spirit, slender and quick, and full of generous gayety. Those little ankles were meant for dancing out in the sunlight, but they were still now as she stared at her only view, the Barnes Mansion next door. The mansion, with its square two-story tower, its windows of colored glass under Moorish arches, had once been fashionable. But society had moved away; the mansion was a boarding house; on the porch was a couch, once gilt and brocade, now broken-backed and played upon by dirty children.
Lelia listlessly watched an old woman, whose hair was confined in a dust cap made of a dish towel, come out on the porch of the mansion and shake a duster. She followed every motion attentively. She had nothing else to do, nothing else to look at. When the old woman disappeared Lelia sighed and wandered to her dressing table.
“Capable — I want to make myself look capable; not so silly and useless,” she said. She sat and thought about it, her elbows among the pretty things of silver and ivory she had brought to this sparse room, her hands pressing her cheeks and making a triangle of her face. “I will be a somebody!” she declared, her lips moving with the words.
She studied her coiffure, the swirl across one side of her head. Her hair was of the bright brown color of a new-fallen maple leaf. She brushed it with long strokes, which made it glitter like falling water, and put it up in a severe straight parting.
“Now I look like a business woman,” she told herself delightedly. She leaned forward to stare at her reflection, patting her lips, trying to make them narrow and stern. Her lips persisted in curving into a smile. But they were suddenly fixed in horror. She peered into the mirror. Like a shadow in the glass, like the shadow of a ghost, she saw the image of her mother-in-law standing back of her at the door, sneaking to spy on her.
That gaunt woman disappeared from the doorway, silent as a bat. Lelia sprang up, faced the door, her hands, behind her, catching the linen cover of the dressing table and twisting it into folds. She rushed out, ran through the flat into the sitting room. Her mother-in-law was there, knitting and rocking as though she had not stirred. She glanced at Lelia contemptuously, mutely asking:
“Why are you running about in this idiotic fashion?”
“I won’t submit! I won’t be imprisoned like this!” Lelia vowed.
As an orphan of fair means, Lelia had been reared in a convent. She loved the sisters; but when she left them and came to Vernon to visit her cousins she was as excited as a student newly arrived in Paris. She believed that the dances at the Lakeside Country Club and the Sunday evening suppers, at which Otis Corvalan was witty over chicken à la King, were the most splendid entertainments in the world.
Her cousins weren’t quite society. In Vernon, that principal city of the state of North Iosota, there is a real society which is as definite about itself as the House of Lords. Its members are mostly of the old pioneer families, running clear back to 1840, at which date the pioneers left their farms in the East and hastened to North Iosota to rend the furs and land from the dastard redmen. Vernon society goes to Palm Beach and New York; it is in wholesaling, the professions or the railroad; it attends either Saint Simeon’s P.E. Church or Pilgrim Congregational; and it frowns upon vulgarity, labor unions and all art except polite portrait painting.
Lelia’s cousins lived five blocks from the Boulevard of the Lakes, and from clime to clime it is a matter of common knowledge that anybody in Vernon who lives more than three blocks from the Boulevard is out of it. The cousins yearned to be in it. They told Lelia, even before she had met him, that Otis Corvalan had been in it. Otis and his mother belonged to the nouveau pauvre now and did not live on the Boulevard. His father had lost most of his money, and had immediately and expensively died. His mother owned two small apartment houses, but the Corvalans could not afford to play with the Boulevard set. Otis gallantly faced his poverty, joked about it, and came to play with the set who owned flivvers and sat in the orchestra. — twenty cents — instead of the boxes — thirty cents — at the aristocratic movie theater in Vernon.
Lelia first saw Otis Corvalan across the room at the party her cousins gave for her. He was a vigorous figure — young, ruddy-lipped; his dark brown hair so curly that it was like a close-fitting cap. She heard him sing out to Charlie Kane:
“Drunk again last night, Charlie? They’re going to station a special cop at your house to help you to bed.”
Everybody laughed, for Charlie Kane was notoriously the steadiest, most gleaming-spectacled of all the young married men in their group.
“Otis always is the life of the party. Don’t you think he’s terribly clever?” Lelia’s youngest cousin whispered.
They were introduced. Lelia felt Otis Corvalan’s strong, square, manicured hand warming hers; saw close those crisp adorable curls; heard his hearty “Welcome to town. Hope you won’t find Vernon dull. Lots of excitement in this burg. We had three nights of grand opera two years ago; and last year Charlie Kane fell off a toboggan and broke his ne plus ultra.”
Afterward, peeping from a corner like a young-breasted dryad in a primrose taffeta party frock, Lelia glanced about the room and glowed. This was the world outside, as she had fancied it in the convent; this raftered living room, with a fireplace and magnificently colored photographs of the Canadian Rockies, and, on an art taboret, a Russian samovar, the use of which no one exactly understood.
This was life — friendship with these laughing noisy people; such nice girls, such jolly young married couples, and, in the center, this Otis Corvalan of the magic cap of curls. She was quite sure the lad she had visioned in the hidden dream place under the catalpa tree in the convent garden looked exactly like Otis.
It was an exclamatory party. Otis dressed up as Napoleon, with a sofa pillow crushed into a cocked hat. They danced to phonograph music and said funny things about their acquaintances who were not there. Otis spoke to Lelia three times; and once he danced with her. He was the best dancer in the room; while she knew only the waltz and a one-step consisting of walking like a high school cadet.
She was abashed; but with him leading, his arm boldly lifting her, she had enchanted wings.
They all helped to get the refreshments. The cousins made the Waldorf salad and sent Lelia and Otis down to the basement to bring up the apples. In this not very romantic cellar, with its cement floor and whitewashed brick walls, its flyspecked electric globe and smell of decayed potatoes, Lelia was stirred to have Otis beside her like a young knight, his square shoulders three inches above hers.
He stopped, twirled the grape basket of apples, and sighed to her: “Dull party, isn’t it? Same old jazz records; same old Charlie telling same old story ’bout Roosevelt. But there’s one swell thing about yon salubrious e’en.”
She looked, questioning.
“And that’s you!” he answered.
“Yea, verily — thou!”
Otis the bold seemed to have become as shy as herself. He glanced away from her; he stammered:
“You’re so — you aren’t settled down; and you don’t spend all your time gossiping, like a lot of these people who’ve never been more than fifty miles from Vernon. You and I know how it is in the East — I’ve been in Chicago a lot of times.”
“But, heavens, Mr. Corvalan, I’m just a scared baby out of an Indiana convent! I don’t know — ”
“But you like to have me — huh? You like to have me like you, don’t you?”
“Y-yes — ”
He seized her hand, thrust it among the apples, and cried: “Why, see this apple! Best one in the bunch! Not going to waste this one on salad! Eat it!” He snatched her hand out of the basket and kissed it.
She looked at him, helpless. His glance came to hers and confessed his admiration. Untrained in the art of pretending to be indignant, Lelia stared back.
His voice was trembling as he muttered:
“You little light fairy thing — I believe I could lift you with two fingers. I will!”
He caught the handle of the basket between his teeth.
It dangled grotesquely below his chin. He stooped, picked her up and, with one arm encircling her shoulders, one tightly pressing her knees, he carried her up the steps, into the kitchen, into the midst of the giggling party. Charlie Kane cried:
“Look who’s here! Otis P. Lochinvar, trying to steal Lelia!”
Otis set her down on the kitchen table, put down the basket of apples, and ranted:
“Am I a horse that thee should say me nay? Seest thouest whomest I have foundest in the cellarest? I mean the cellaret. ‘Tis the sleeping princess; and I’ll say she’s some cute kid. For — loest — when Lord Corvalan didest approach she saidest ‘Oh! ‘Tis Otis!’”
Everybody applauded very much. Lelia blushed. She did not heed their noisy comments. She knew that in the quick desperate grasp of those arms about her there had been something more real than a desire to be humorous. Otis left her there on the table; seemed to ignore her while he bustlingly brought in the ice cream freezer. But in the midst of his arm-waving pranks his eyes looked full at her, and he seemed frightened.
When the guests were going they two had a moment together in the room at the end of the hall.
“You,” he said shakily — “you are so wonderful! And you do like me!”
An agonizing look of confession between them; a sudden kiss. He was gone. But his spirit remained with her, hiding the world.
The almost-near-the-Boulevard group commented that Otis Corvalan was attentive to Lelia. He took her and the cousins to the cabaret at the Vernon Hotel; to a dance at the Lakeside Club. He borrowed a motor car and gave them a picnic, and showed what a good driver he was by passing much more expensive cars.
She had, in that excited night after meeting him, believed that he would love like a young god, with a poetic and grandiose humility like that of the lovers in such novels as had been smuggled into the convent. She found that he was not a young god, but a young man living in Vernon. He never kissed her glove, nor knelt and wailed “I am unworthy of thee.” Instead, he sat on the railing of the porch and teased her about shoes. And when he kissed her, after the Iosota Club dance, she discovered that kisses were not the respectful bloodless things they had seemed in the novels.
But, just as a young man, he was masterful. His waistcoats fitted dashingly, his barred ties of heavy crinkly silk were ahead of the styles, and he always labored to lift parties up out of dullness. He was not merely ornamental, however. He said such good things — things which showed that, though he was only twenty-seven, he was a man of profound thought and wide experience. Lelia was open-lipped with admiration of his pronouncements. He criticized the cuisine of the Vernon Hotel, the acting of the Garrick Stock Company, the manners of Claude Manahan, the politics of the Nonpartisan League, and the floor arrangement of Whalley & Baumgarten’s Department Store. Especially regarding motor cars was he accurate and inspiring. He could tell any car from a rear view, and give the horse power, the carburization, the cost.
Her cousins hinted that, however clever Otis might be in pointing out the faults of others, he himself hadn’t succeeded very well. He had held half a dozen jobs — assistant teller in the Exchange National Bank, salesman of advertising, a vague something in the office of a firm of contractors — and now he was doing nothing at all, they said spitefully, except living on his mother. But Lelia understood this better than they did. Otis had explained. He had left his job at the advertising agency because he, and he alone, had refused to endure the tyranny of the jealous manager. “I told him just where he got off!” announced Otis. And now, instead of being idle, he was “looking into something that’s got millions in it!” He confided to Lelia:
“These conservative old bucks that sit round and feed their faces at the Iosota Club and think they put the busy bee in business — maybe they can’t see it, but I do; and I’m right in on the ground floor. Chance of a lifetime! ‘Have a million plunks, Sir Otis?’ Thanks, m’ man; don’t care if I do, Meadows.”
This chance of a lifetime was a newly discovered iron region in Northern Minnesota; one that would unquestionably rival the Mesaba Iron Range. Otis was trying to get his mother to invest; but she was prejudiced, Otis sadly admitted.
Rarely did he speak of his mother. She was out of town now, visiting a sister. From Otis’ patient reticence about her, and from the ejaculation of one of her cousins — “Mrs. Corvalan sure is one nice large gloom!” — Lelia gathered that Mrs. Corvalan had been deeply saddened by her husband’s death. Lelia caught herself resolving that when she had married Otis she would try to cheer up the poor dear old lady. Then, because nothing had ever been said of her marrying Otis, she flushed, and was surprised and frightened by the first pang of a hunger for love.
Of marriage Otis did begin to talk. He held her in his arms and swore that till he had seen her he had not known how miraculous life could be. She was to marry him; and as soon as he had put through the iron-land deal, as soon as he had persuaded his mother to buy a large block of stock and craftily sell it on the inevitable rise, they would have a roadster and a concrete house way out on the Boulevard, and give parties at the Lakeside Club.
He was uneasy about his mother’s approval. She had, he said, never been herself since his father’s death. Lelia wanted to win Mrs. Corvalan’s friendship before marriage. But one day Otis burst in with the news that his friend, Tom MeNevin, in charge of a small railroad construction camp in Wisconsin, had to go South two weeks from now and wanted Otis to take charge during his absence. Two weeks — that gave them time for a flying honeymoon. They were married the next day.
Of choosing a place of habitation, of hiring maids and buying a fireless cooker and intimidating the iceman Lelia knew nothing. In the mild activities she had learned in the convent she was industrious, but always her environment had been ready made. She was disappointed but not anxious when, during the honey-colored days of canoeing and of whispering beneath the Northern oaks, he said casually that just for the time being they would go to his mother’s flat.
Lelia had never seen the fiat. Otis said it was on a backwater that had once been the “swellest street in town.” She pictured elm trees; yards returned to a shy, beautiful wildness. She would be more happy there than in the newer streets, with their glaring stucco.
Back from their journey, coming from the station in the luxury of a taxicab, they drove through a region of large drab frame houses, all alike and very near together, the rows of them broken by new four-family apartment houses, all of tapestry brick and brightened by sun parlors in front. It was a region of clerkships and worry about raises and about sending the boys to small colleges. They passed into a district that was a series of small towns. Here were no flats and movie theaters, but only frame houses, with barns behind them and washing on the lines; here lived the workmen who worried not about colleges, but about meat bills.
Lelia felt uneasy. This was not the metropolitan Vernon she had known. But they were coming into a quarter at once more impressive and more depressing: decayed streets; mansions fashionable long ago, but now, with their tower windows boarded up and their mighty wooden pillars rotted, turned into boarding houses. Where the Honorable Gerard Randall had once spun his gilded top, two staring Italian children lurked behind a rusty Gothic fence. Lelia was chill. Then on a street lamp she noticed the name of the street. It was the street on which the Corvalans lived. It was the street on which she was to begin her married life.
The taxicab drew up in front of an apartment house constructed in the experimental period of 1880. The whole basement story was above ground, giving it the appearance of having been washed out by a flood. The windows were stingy. The porches were of wood, painted in a sour shade of red, like underdone roast beef. The building was of that peculiar dirty yellow brick which at one time was invariably used for school buildings and prisons.
“Here we are!” said Otis, trying to make it cheerful.
“B-but I thought your mother’s flats were those nice new ones, with the sun parlors.”
“She’s got a couple of those, but she says we have to stick here and save money. Dad built this shack a couple of centuries ago. Mother is just a little bit tightwad. Maybe we can get her to move.” The voice of her hero sounded weak and complaining.
She followed him into a lower hall made more depressing by a sickly blue light dribbling through colored glass above the door. She crept after him up two flights of stairs and along a stale upper hall to the door of the flat.
The sitting room, facing on the street, had light enough, but the furniture was huge and ugly, damp with age and unhappiness. She tried to assure herself that she could make the room cheerful. But it was so ponderously silent. She shuddered as she felt the invisible presence of Otis’ mother.
While he was looking at his mail she slipped away, down the railroad hall, to the bedrooms. They were dim. They were grudgingly clean. The furniture was an assortment inherited from the big house the Corvalans had once occupied, together with new pieces bought on the principles of economy and grim utility; large stuffed chairs of tattered fringes beside small nasty iron washstands. On the bed in the farthest room Lelia cried till her eyes ached.
She was ashamed that she had thought of herself; not of her gay lad, who had so long been confined in this tomb. She ran into the sitting room.
Otis was at the window, looking out, rigid. She kissed him and caroled: “We’ll cheer up your mother; and we’ll get some chintz and nice pictures, and make the flat a regular cage of canaries.”
“I hope so,” he said bravely. He was stuffing a letter into his pocket.
“What is it?”
“Just a letter from my mother — a sweet billet-doux answering my letter about our marriage. She — er — she won’t be back here for some time.”
“Let me see it.”
“It would just bother you.”
“Please! Aren’t we going to share all our troubles?”
“Well — ”
Again she chilled to the sound of dilatory weakness in his voice.
She read the letter. She did not weep now. She laid the envelope on the center table and sat down, azing at him calmly. But her nails were gouging her palms. Mrs. Corvalan had written:
I suppose it is useless for me to protest against your taking this somewhat important step without even doing me the courtesy of letting me know beforehand. I have so often tried to give you counsel that I cannot think of anything new to say. But I do wonder what sort of a young woman would permit you to marry her in this hasty illicit way. Is she too young and ignorant to know better, or is there some less excusable reason?
On the evening before Otis left for his month’s absence, to take charge of railroad construction for his friend, Tom McNevin, Lelia and he had McNevin for dinner. They had no maid and Lelia tried to prepare dinner. She was plucky about it for an hour; but in the midst of burnt fingers and worse-burnt roast chicken, watery potatoes and sandy spinach, she broke down and howled.
Otis laughed at her in his most adorable way, held her in his arms to kiss her, and shouted “You funny little crying thing!” till she smiled feebly. He insisted on sending down to the Vernon Hotel for a complete dinner, with wine. She remonstrated that they ought to economize; but he chuckled and would not listen. With mock funeral rites they dumped the late lamented attempt at dinner into the garbage pail, and danced to a new and expensive jazz record he had brought home.
Her Otis, the light of parties, did not shine much in the presence of Mr. McNevin, who was a mustached, quizzical man, much older than Otis. Otis boasted of his knowledge of aviation, French literature and brass molding; but, as McNevin asked him questions with grave insulting reverence, he promptly abandoned the attempt to be impressive and began to ask questions in turn.
Lelia had a feeling of being permitted to look into Otis’ soul. She watched him lay up a stock of that diversified and accurate knowledge for which she had admired him. He who had impressed her with his knowledge of the Northwest and ignition was asking McNevin about the Northwest and — “Say, Mac — you take your car — how does this darn’ ignition on it work anyway?”
Lelia was amiable — less inclined to swing from boisterousness to a mood of dreamy brooding than she had been on the honeymoon. But under this even surface she was thinking — thinking — thinking.
Then Otis was off for his month in charge of McNevin’s camp. Lelia was alone in the flat.
Her cousins came to call on her, with fluttering and rather smirking curiosity about the cabala of marriage. She discovered the tradition that all conversational bars were suddenly down as soon as she was married. They overwhelmed her with the frankness of the stories they had breathlessly extracted from other brides; and they more than hinted that they expected her to oblige, in return, and add to their private library of curious literature.
As she listened to them, Lelia fancied she was changing, physically, visibly, from a gentle, fragile being into a sturdy, abrupt woman. She smiled placidly at her cousins and gave them a detailed and peculiarly tedious account of towns, trains and dining-car service. The cousins gave her up. They mechanically invited her to stay with them during Otis’ absence. She felt that they were sorry for her. She promised to come to dinner often, and to “run in on them — oh, very, very often”; but she refused to stay with them for even one night.
So she was left alone to face those slinking forms of disapproval that crept through the flat by day and night. For a week she never sat down without wanting to look back of her at the something that was standing there, waiting.
Her mother-in-law, who had been negligible during the honeymoon days, small and far off and feeble, had swollen into a mighty form that filled the flat. It was her spirit that darkened the rooms, her contemptuous murmurs that made up this noisy silence.
At first Lelia tried — with much consideration of economy but without much knowledge of the belligerent art of shopping — to get some decorations to enliven the flat. She bought rosy cretonne curtains for the sitting-room windows, a cretonne cover for the biggest and ugliest chair, a print of a hollyhock lane; and she was almost happy as she lost herself in the activity of cutting out the curtains. But she didn’t dare to put them up. The spectral figure of Mrs. Corvalan seemed to stand beside her, forbidding her. And — since this was a year or two before the appearance of war relief and the Red Cross — there was nothing more for her to do. She was mentally marooned.
After a week she no longer started at the sound of imaginary footsteps; but she settled into the brooding of the lonely woman, a meditation inarticulate and inconclusive, yet so absorbing, so enmeshing will and desire, that she didn’t even trouble to prepare meals. For evening supper she contented herself with tea and toast.
She was thinking about Otis. She was being frank about him. She was not seditious in her thoughts. She did not blame him for bringing her to this dust heap of the soul; she tried to forget her glimpse of the easy sources of his information; she barred out memories of his sappy complaints about his mother. But she did portray him as a boy, not yet grown up.
As a lass in the convent, her hours of meditation had been rose-misted and sweet with the promise of love. No such fairy dreams were her long hours of thinking now. They were gray; they were as bitterly real as the frozen earth of winter. But they grew from mere contemplation into the first constructive thinking she had ever done in her life of pleasant evasions. She determined that, since Otis was a child, she would rear him; and that to do this she would rear herself.
A solemn little figure, like a girl in big spectacles and a trailing skirt playing grandmother, Lelia went to the public library and took out two unromantic treatises — a cookbook and a volume on railroad construction. From her own small pocket money she invested in meats and sauces and vegetables that in their virgin state were strangers to her. She began a laboratory course in cooking, alternated with headachy attempts to find out why, how and what was this railroad construction that Otis was doing.
She became content. And her contentment was vastly increased by a letter for herself, which finally emerged from her mother-in-law’s silence:
I have been trying to get myself to write to you. You must have thought me very discourteous. But, you see, I don’t know much about you. Otis’ letters present you as a paragon in general but vague in particular. However, you have my best wishes.
REBECCA C. CORVALAN.
P. S. You will find Otis’ thick socks, if he needs them in present work, in drawer beneath wardrobe in my room.
That day, Lelia hemmed and dared to put up the new cretonne curtains. She stood back and looked at them — at the impertinent little crimson parrots flying among the blue orchids, all very bright against windows glazed by the reflected light from the sunset.
She patted the curtains with fingers sensitive to the crisp newness of the material, and sighed: “Oh, I hope she’ll like them!”
She was equally optimistic in her plans for Otis. His letters were buoyant. He was “showing them!” McNevin was “a good scout, but not very long on system; and I am bringing the men up to scratch. Expect the Big Boss soon on an inspection trip and am sure he will hand me a real job. Would like it fine!”
She was proud of him. She imagined him appointed by the Big Boss as superintendent of an important camp. She would go to him; she would be glad to live in a shack among mountains or woods; she would cook for him and clean his mud-reddened boots. She sang and experimentally cooked such wilderness dishes as flapjacks and beans and doughnuts — and she ate them, too, as her appetite came back.
It was on a morning two weeks after Otis had gone that the bell rang briskly and she hastened out with the hope that it was the postman. She skipped down the hall. Slow, heavy steps were on the stairs. As she reached them she saw Otis himself coming up. He was bedraggled. He was in a torn blue-denim shirt and his mouth sagged.
She stopped, her hand to her breast, marveling.
“What are you — You poor dear thing! You look so — Oh, what is it?”
“Well, you’d be tired, too, if you’d sat up all night on the train!”
He slammed past her into the flat. She followed him into their bedroom, wailing:
“What is it? What is it? Why are you here?”
“Is that all the welcome I get from the girl I married just one month ago?”
“Why, dear, you have all the welcome in my heart!”
Standing behind him, she wound her arms about him — tried to catch his arms. He roughly drew away from her and growled in a voice not so much defiant as small-boyishly ashamed:
“Well, you don’t need to start in with reproaches.”
“What would I reproach you for? What have you done?”
“I’ve been fired! The Big Boss came — Say, he’s a devil! You simply can’t understand what hogs some of those business men are! And he found a lot of fault, and all. And I up and told him just where he got off; and — and I quit.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, looking at him blankly, while he burst out:
“Go on! Tell me I’m no good, like mother always does. You women are all alike. You don’t know the difficulties a fellow has. And then some fellow does him dirt, and you blame him for it; and you just deliberately try to think up all the cutting things you can — ”
“Otis, I have nothing to say. I had no thought of reproaches. You’d better lie down now and get some sleep. You’ll find clean pyjamas in the top drawer.”
She started toward the door, while he begged, his bravado gone:
“Where are you going?”
“I’m going downtown to do some shopping. You don’t seem to care for my sympathy.”
“Listen; please listen!”
He ran after her, all his pert assurance lost in a whining suppliance. She attended with cold courtesy while he howled: “I was a chump! I didn’t mean to be so cranky; but I was so tired.” With a sudden terrifying wail he cried: “Oh, I’m no good!” And he threw himself upon the bed. Tenderness overwhelmed her. She knelt by the bed, begging in her turn — begging him to forgive her. He lifted her up beside him and their unhappiness was forgotten in a long kiss, while his hungry hand stroked her hair, her shoulder.
Two weeks afterward Mrs. Corvalan announced that she was coming home, and Lelia began a terrified cleaning of every inch of the flat, while Otis, in a new suit, made plans for getting his mother to invest in the iron lands.
Lelia was sure, while they were waiting at the station for her, that Mrs. Corvalan would be large, plump and silver-haired. She would run to her and call her “Mother!” The dear old lady would splutter and capitulate damply.
The train was in, with its inevitable straggle of people with suitcases, its inevitable wonder: “Didn’t she come, after all?” Then Otis shouted: “There she is!”
Lelia saw a tall, thin-cheeked woman, not in mourning but in a suit of lusterless black that was more gloomy than any mourning. Her eyes were dark, her complexion was sallow, her thin hands were brown, her hair was intensely black under her plain black-straw hat. Otis was crying “How are you, old honey?” with much effusiveness. Mrs. Corvalan merely nodded to him and fixed her eyes on Lelia; looked her over. Those dead eyes showed no emotion save uninterested prejudice.
“Mother!” Lelia tried to say; but the word choked her and she heard herself stammering: “So glad to meet you, Mrs. Corvalan.”
“How do you do, Lelia?” grated the mother-in-law.
Otis was clamoring:
“Just a second, mammy, and I’ll go buy a taxi.”
“We will take a street car, thank you!”
Lelia trudged after the Corvalans — she was not a Corvalan herself, but a lonely little girl. On the car she tried to talk about the weather. Mrs. Corvalan listened, with a steady, speculative stare. In silence they came into the flat, Lelia’s heart beating fast with the hope that her mother-in-law would like the cretonne curtains, or else savagely dislike them, rave about them — do anything to break this dreadful silence.
Mrs. Corvalan strode into the sitting room, glanced at the curtains, and, without a word, passed on to her own room and closed the door.
Steady eyes, contemptuously watching; secret eyes that peered at her and never overlooked her smallest nervous gesture; soft prowling footsteps that followed her from room to room; jealousy that enveloped her while she dressed or read, or dared to be so young as to kiss her boy of a husband — watching, listening, creeping.
Only when Otis and she, after profuse childish explanations to their lord and mother, had slipped away to walk in the park did Lelia dare to cling to him for protection. Even when the door of their room was closed on the woman Lelia had the feeling of her sneaking outside there — watching, listening, creeping. She felt that Mrs. Corvalan was plotting to get rid of her. She dreaded any controversy that would give her a chance to take sides.
And Lelia had nothing to do. Her mother-in-law stated that she would take over the kitchen. Lelia might, if she wished, dust her room and make the beds. That done, Lelia tried to read, with the haunting feeling that Mrs. Corvalan’s eyes were on her the moment she looked at a book.
She dared not go to the movies or shop. She felt that she must economize. And call on her cousins she could not. She was afraid that in their presence she would break down. She walked alone, desperate, unseeing. But Otis’ cheerful attitude was that she spent her afternoons at the most splendid and expensive parties, while he toiled.
She did not explain. Often when he wanted her to go to evening parties with “the bunch” she pleaded a headache. She did not know what to do. If they had parties they spent money. If they stayed home they were paralyzed by the presence of the mother.
Otis had, with a pretense of casual cheerfulness, renewed his demand that his mother invest in the iron lands. She had listened with a sour smile, and answered only:
“I wrote you that I was not interested. I am sorry I have been so flabby that you suppose I have changed my mind. There seems to be some mistake. I have not changed it. Lelia, will you have some more of the beets?”
Now Otis was helping take stock in a bankrupt wholesale house and devoting his higher self to a wonderful new plan. He said nothing about that plan to his mother; but to Lelia, while they walked in the park, he recited it in a poetic narrative. Farmers, he pointed out, rarely had broad efficient business experience. He himself had, he modestly implied. He was going to unite a dozen farms under his business management and make large wealth in a very short time. Then they should have a new house on the Boulevard and let Mrs. Corvalan keep the flat.
Lelia was agreeable about it, but she couldn’t help asking just which dozen farms he was thinking of, and what knowledge he had of marketing wheat and cream. He cried “You’re as discouraging as mother!”
In silence they walked home — to the bristling silence of Mrs. Corvalan.
It was the next day that Lelia, wistfully trying to make herself look capable as she sat at her dressing table, caught in the mirror the image of her mother-in-law, spying on her from the doorway.
She followed Mrs. Corvalan back into the sitting room. She told herself: “I won’t be imprisoned like this! If she hates me I’m going to make her say and then I’m going to get out of this.” She got so far in her attack as to snap:
“Well?” Mrs. Corvalan spoke evenly, arched her eyebrows, looked bored.
“I — I — I’m going for a walk!”
Lelia knew that if she did not flee fast and far she would break things, try to kill this hateful enemy. She clapped a hat on her head, seized a topcoat, dragged it behind her down the stairs, and hurried through the street, half running. She looked longingly at two children chattering with their mother. As she had done a hundred times before, she longed for a child — Otis’ child, with his own curls and his appealing eyes. And, as a hundred times before, she resolved she would never bear a child to die in the flat of dead desires and murdered hope.
She must have walked for miles. She found a part of Vernon entirely strange to her — a region of immense mills of steel and glass and concrete. They were sooty; but their briskness, their air of meaning something and accomplishing something, made them beautiful to her. She admired a crane that picked up carloads of girders and tossed them on a platform. She longed to be running such a crane; to be noisy and competent in overalls.
Walking unseeing through a district of undistinguishable houses, she began to make definite plans. She thought of nursing. Always she had been happy to mother small sick things — birds and kittens and puppies. At the convent it was she who had bandaged cuts. The nuns had told her that, if she were not a lady and destined to adorn a splendid home, she would have made a capable nurse. She felt that she was fed up with adorning a home and altogether dubious about this business of being a lady. It cost too much.
She went to the Y.W.C.A. She found she could take a course of lectures on nursing; lectures thrice a week. If she liked them, the secretary said, she could later decide whether she wanted to enter a regular training school. She walked home, excitedly reading an instruction book. As a girl looks at the end of a novel to see whether it has a happy ending, so Lelia peeped at Lesson XVII. “My! I’ll know so much when I get ’way over there!” she thrilled.
When she came in she nodded to Mrs. Corvalan and hid the book beneath her lingerie in her bureau. In the evening, when they three were playing a dreadfully silent game of casino, she had a fright about the book; a conviction that when she was out her mother-in-law went prowling through her possessions. She rushed to her room and hid the book beneath the mattress.
She wanted to tell Otis about her plan. She was sure that, despite his opinions on being proper and ladylike, he would understand; but he might laugh at her if she were to tell him before she had actually done any work.
For two months she had three absorbing afternoons a week and her notebooks were filled with notes in her tiny precise script. After two months she left her instruction books and notebooks on the bureau while she ran down to mail a letter. She returned to find Mrs. Corvalan pawing them over. Lelia stood at the door, quaking, looking at that rigid back. She could actually hear those long nails scraping on the precious pages.
Mrs. Corvalan chucked the books back on the bureau and turned. She stared calmly; she sat on the bed; she croaked:
“Lelia, I want to have a talk with you. Sit down.” Lelia remained standing, trying to make herself defiant. “I assume you are taking a course in nursing.”
“Mrs. Corvalan, I don’t see that you have any right to cross-examine me.”
Mrs. Corvalan answered by lifted brows and a cool:
“How far have you gone into this thing?”
“Lectures — three times a week.”
“Just lectures? Not a very thorough way to learn nursing.”
“I hope to go on with it.”
“With what purpose? — if I may ask.”
“Why — why, I think every woman ought to have something — some profession — if anything happened — ”
Mrs. Corvalan shrugged her shoulders. Now Lelia braced herself for the struggle. Mrs. Corvalan rose, stared a moment, and mused:
“I hope you will be successful. I think you are quite right. And — er — if you haven’t told him already, let me advise you not to tell Otis. He is a real Corvalan; he believes that woman’s place is in her home.”
She was gone. When Lelia recovered from her amazement she rushed to the kitchen and begged:
“Let me help you with the cooking. I really do it nicely.”
It was the dry cynical woman she had known who answered:
“No doubt; but I am rather set in my ways.” And turning her back, she lowered the gas flame beneath the stew.
Day after day there was no further comment on her nursing, and Lelia decided that Mrs. Corvalan was hoping to get rid of her. But she went to her nursing classes gladly for another month.
She usually reached home before five; and Otis, whether he was actually working or, as now, engaged in ambassadorial negotiations for an “important opening,” rarely came home before six. He often told her how lucky she was to be able to spend her afternoons in the delights of bridge and gossip, and she let him rave on. But on the day when the head nurse of a Chicago hospital addressed the class Lelia stayed to talk with the nurse; to ask how, in some vague future, she might support herself while getting her training. She did not return till after six and Otis reached the street door just as she did.
“Fellow is crazy to have me go in with him on a land deal,” he shouted amiably. “Been to the library? Good Lord! The lovey-dovey novels you women read!” He twitched the books from beneath her arm and chuckled: “Not going to let you have ’em — bad for naughty ’ittelums to read love ’tories.” And he vaulted up the stairs ahead of her.
When she came on him, round the bend in the stairs, he was glaring at her notebooks, bewildered.
“What’s all this stuff? What d’you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going to learn to be a nurse.”
“You are not!”
“What do you mean?”
With that large nobleness of optimistic males, Otis made oration:
“You wouldn’t understand if I did explain. Of course I believe in suffrage and all that; though I never did like these hatchet-faced females who want a vote because they can’t get a husband, and come round and bother a man and tell him how to run his business.”
“Did you ever meet any women like that?”
Otis winged his lofty way onward without heeding her earthy interruption:
“Still, I guess this suffrage is all right; but now I’ll tell you my idea of it: A woman ought to adorn her home, and comfort a man when he’s all tired out; and you, especially, a Corvalan — you know my grandad was almost the biggest man in Vernon. And — my Lord! — what would people think if they knew you were interested in a common occupation like nursing? Your duty is — well, we ought to teach people good manners; and, anyway, a Corvalan — ”
Was it she who spoke, or was it the voice of a stranger that she heard icily stating:
“My child, somebody in this family has to earn a living!”
She left him, while behind her Otis was proving that hell hath no furies like a Corvalan scorned. He stormed; he wailed. He alternated between ordering her to give up nursing and ordering her to leave his hearth and home at once and become a nurse. She stood in the middle of the sitting room, rather enjoying this melodrama after months of repression. She did not say a word. She couldn’t without using a megaphone. And she had nothing to say, except that she was going to continue her study.
Mrs. Corvalan appeared at the door and listened stolidly. She interrupted:
“I don’t know what the subject of your address tonight is, Otis, but you are very eloquent. Now you’d better go wash up. Supper is ready.”
Otis turned on her:
“Do you know that Lelia is taking up an idiotic course in nursing?”
“Are you going to permit it? Do you approve?”
“I suppose you’d like me to see my wife working as a servant in the houses of my friends.” He looked at Lelia with a sneer.
“My dear boy, don’t be so inexact. In the first place, nurses aren’t servants. In the second place, if they were I should have a fellow feeling for them — being your servant in this flat. In the third place, you haven’t any friends; you have worked them so many times for loans and easy jobs that they despise you.”
“Why, I — have — never — been — spoken to — like — this — in — my — life!”
“Oh, yes you have; only you hadn’t the subtlety to see it. I myself have insulted you quite frequently. I’ll admit I’ve never spoken quite so plainly before. I’ve been frozen up. Now I’m beginning to thaw — thanks to this child. I haven’t been very affectionate to her. Your father and you have been so full of affection and untrustworthiness that I have soured on endearing terms. But one thing I can do — not let you break her! Now, Otis, don’t slam the door too hard; and if you are going to leave us forever, and never see us again, do try to be back by midnight — and come in quietly.”
But he did slam the door very hard. He came back to roar that, since they did not understand him, he would shame them by going to work as a roustabout in the freight yards. He slammed the door even harder on his second exit.
That supper was, of all the meals in Lelia’s life, the most strange, the most unreal. Casually eating, talking in a steady unemotional monologue, the mother-in-law undressed her soul. She began:
“I’d better take advantage of my talkative mood and be reasonably shameless, Lelia. Don’t think I am unjust to your husband. You see mine, Otis’ father, was just like him — sweet and lovable and eloquent, and unbelievably worthless.”
At the end, slowly tapping a dessert spoon, she said:
“I’ve been embittered. I am not a pleasant woman. For some years I was rather proud of being unpleasant. I nursed my hate. And when you first came I was jealous. We women do love these Otises, even when we despise them; and I thought you were too soft for him. But now my dear, if you will let me I should like to love you.”
Lelia started up, her arms out; but Mrs. Corvalan held up her hand for silence and went on:
“We’ll try to work this out together. Perhaps by low cunning we can get our superior Corvalan laddy to become the equal of the average longshoreman. Meantime you’d better go on with your nursing and I will be your assistant. You see — ” The proud voice broke. “At last I have a child of my own!”
She rushed into her bedroom and closed the door.
They sat up for Otis that night; and as they made plans to entrap him into trustworthiness their distaste for him changed back into a yearning love. At midnight he had not come; nor at dawn. Lelia had the impression that if he were brought home dead the mother would not weep — though it might perhaps kill her.
The next afternoon, while they stood, anxious, at the window, they saw him swinging down the street, cocky, energetic, trim.
“The poor dear silly boy — he has gone and got that roustabout job!” said Lelia.
He popped into the room. He chuckled:
“Gee, we were all soreheads last night! Was I cross? You folks sure were! Well, I’ve got a job.” Lelia crowed; even Mrs. Corvalan was radiant. “That is, I’m pretty sure I’ve got it. If I can just raise a thousand plunks I can go in with a fellow on a whale of a real estate deal. No” — waving his hand loftily — “I shan’t take a cent from you, mammy. I know a place where I’m pretty sure I can raise it.”
Lelia laughed hysterically and, taking her books, went out to the park to study. It was she who took the lead when they next talked of Otis.
“One thing we might do, Mrs. Corvalan: It’s terribly fresh of me to suggest it, but I do think that if you lost your property it might be good for him — make him become responsible.”
“Perhaps. I’ll think it over.”
Then for weeks they sank back into their old dreary routine. The only difference was the grating courtesy with which Mrs. Corvalan treated her. Of affection there was no sign. The land deal disappeared, undealt, and Otis did actually get a job.
A hustler — one of those people who rush about with many papers and engagements, with mysterious telephone calls and catchings of trains and a chronic state of conferences — a hustler was in town to lay out a new motor trail northward from Vernon. He was making short addresses full of words such as “enterprise,” “pep” and “initiative.” He met Otis at the Vernon Commercial Association clubrooms, liked his suave opinions on motors and road making, and engaged Otis to assist him. For weeks Otis was himself a hustler, with a full outfit of papers, engagements and catchings of trains. He went out of town to see garages and commercial clubs, to get them to subscribe to markers for the trail. At home he spoke affably of himself and his work, gave his womenfolk advice, and always had a not unpleasant odor of sweet Martini cocktails.
He must have known that Lelia was continuing her course in nursing; but he ignored the matter with an open-handed, open-hearted assumption that his womenfolk couldn’t possibly disobey so competent a man of the house. He did not go so far in his open-handedness as to bring home much money. But Lelia made herself believe that Otis was becoming genuine. She begged Mrs. Corvalan to believe it. “Huh! I hope so!” was all the mother would say. The more because of that doubt, Lelia let her affection for Otis flow round him now. She listened with quick smiles to his accounts of his triumphs in Gopher Prairie and Joralemon, and the nice things the most prominent doctor of Bjornson Junction had said about him.
In his growing affluence he indicated that they ought to have a baby to carry on the name and glory of the Corvalans.
Lelia felt immodest when Otis discussed the matter rather openly. In Vernon it is good form for married people to be witty and suggestive about love, but very bad form, very Bohemian and socialistic to discuss anything so shocking as the economic place of children. Lelia the girl was miserably embarrassed; but Lelia the nurse refused to have any children till there should be an honorable place made ready for them.
A week afterward Otis furiously announced that his chief, the hustler, was a snake in the grass, and that Otis had shown him where he “got off.” Also, that he was glad of it, because he had met a distinguished motor manufacturer who was simply crazy to have Otis’ services.
The two women looked at each other and shook their heads. Otis was again unattached; again politely suggestive to his mother about small sums for clothes.
To their surprise the motor manufacturer was not a myth. Otis actually produced him for dinner. They were impressed. His name was Simon Lizechy; he was a handsome man of forty, with the look of an English major; with a hearty laugh, a knowledge of many cities, and a gold cigarette case. It seemed that Mr. Lizechy was going to revolutionize industry in Vernon and in the entire state of North Iosota. He was, he boomed, “a great believer in our great state,” though he had been a resident of our great state for only six months.
A cynical lawyer friend of Mrs. Corvalan told her that Mr. Lizechy had sold New York real estate in Oklahoma and Oklahoma mines in New York. But now he was entirely converted to Vernon and permanent industries. He was going to manufacture the Ritoway car. Wherein that motor differed from other makes Lelia could not understand; but Mr. Lizechy assured them it was to be most superior.
There were no Ritoway cars yet to be beheld; but Mr. Lizechy was actually building a factory and permitting his fellow citizens to buy stock. His advertisements splashed the daily papers with assurances that, whatever knockers, pessimists and grouches might think, Mr. Lizechy was a believer in the prosperity of Vernon and determined to develop that prosperity — by selling Ritoway cars.
Lelia had never met so sophisticated, so magniloquent, so beautiful a man as Mr. Lizechy. His frankness swept away her doubts. She was delighted that the magnate should have taken a fancy to Otis. He was thinking of making Otis assistant general manager of the factory — when it should be finished. She was happy at the box party Mr. Lizechy gave at the comedy “with the original New York cast.”
Mr. Lizechy announced that he was a lover of labor as well as of prosperity, and that he was going to make his factory strictly profit-sharing. He was going not only to permit his employees to buy stock but, for their own future good, to require them to buy it. . . . If Otis was to be assistant general manager he was to take fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of stock.
This announcement he pontifically made at a dinner at the Corvalans’ flat. Lelia looked at Mrs. Corvalan. She was astonished to find that the mother was grinning.
“Otis and I will think about it,” said Mrs. Corvalan.
“Yes, yes; by all means. Take your time. Just a suggestion of our prosperity program,” chanted Mr. Lizechy.
When Lelia and Mrs. Corvalan had a chance to talk it over the mother snorted:
“I didn’t think Mr. Lizechy would be so generous! Fifteen thousand dollars he is willing to take off my feeble shoulders! And the utmost I could raise by selling everything I own wouldn’t be much over twenty thousand.”
“Mother, let’s do it!”
“Are you crazy, child?”
“No. I guess Mr. Lizechy is — what is it Otis calls them? — a crook. But don’t you remember? We agreed that it might help Otis not to have any income to fall back on. If the thing actually should go through, and he was a manager, the responsibility might get him down to earth. If it breaks — he’ll have to go to work! Please — ”
“It’s for you to decide, child. You have more years to get through than I have.”
So Otis Corvalan became the owner of fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of stock in the Ritoway Motor Company and assistant general manager of a still nonexistent factory. His speech became slower with the weightiness of the opinions he had to deliver. He imitated Mr. Lizechy’s hearty walk and bought a cigarette case as much like Mr. Lizechy’s as he could find.
And the factory actually did open after six months, during which Lelia finished her lectures on nursing and began to read anatomy and physiology. Several cars were produced and Ritoway stock sold widely. Otis was less vice-regal now; he was worried by the need of learning the elementary principles of manufacturing. In a moment of weariness he confessed to Lelia that he had been a fool; that he had never concentrated on anything.
He was working hard now, and the responsibility was making him realize that something more than wit and two-dollar ties was required for the management of workmen. He had almost learned the difference between processed steel and leather substitute when the unsympathetic Federal investigators got Mr. Lizechy and suspended the Ritoway Motor Company.
When Otis came home Lelia put his head on her shoulder and comforted him for the hurt. She was ready to sacrifice everything for him. When he mourned “I’ve ruined all of us!” she chirped: “Never mind, dear. I’ll help you.”
Then at last Mrs. Corvalan showed herself the traditional mother-in-law, taking the part of her child against the interloper. Only it was Lelia who was her child. She coldly interrupted:
“Yes, Otis, you have ruined us. Lelia and I have a few thousands, though. And we are going to Chicago — ”
“What do you mean, mother?” Lelia demanded.
“I’ve made arrangements for you to enter a nurses’ training school there. I’ll go along and keep house for you — if you’ll let me. And Otis can come and join us when he succeeds at something — if he succeeds! We’ll pray that he does. But if he doesn’t — ”
An hour or two later, after Otis had gone out to look for a job — not for an “opening” — Lelia glanced into the mirror of her dressing table and caught the reflection of her mother-in-law watching her from the doorway, like a shadow in the glass; like the shadow of a ghost. She saw that Mrs. Corvalan’s cheeks were shining with long-unused tears; that her face and her puckered mouth were working pitifully, as though she was trying to speak.
Mrs. Corvalan turned away, silent. Then Lelia ran to her; and in a passion of hope for the future the two women clung together.
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