First published in The Smart Set, 1913
When morning came life was still lingering—that is, if what was left could be called life. It seemed less life than the delay of death in coming; less as if a living man was dying than as though a dead man were breathing. The doctor said there could be only a few hours more.
There was nothing to do in those hours. The time for an attempt at keeping life, even the time for a pretense at that attempt, had passed. All that remained was to sit there in quiet through that mysterious time when life and death touched.
She knew that her mother was worn out, and in any case she preferred being alone with her husband as she waited.
It was not that she would be alone with him because those last hours of what could be called life were precious to her, too meaningful for sharing even with her mother. She wanted to be alone because she did not feel what it would be expected she should feel.
It was May, and as the woman who was watching—waiting—looked from the window, she saw that the lilacs just underneath had come out in the night. That soft rain had won them. The raindrops still lingered, and now the sun shone upon wet flowers and leaves. She leaned out for a breath of them. But when it came up to her she drew back, and leaving the window sat down over by the far side of the bed.
She had been married in lilac time—in lilac time twenty-two years before. Suddenly she remembered coming into that very room to take off her wedding dress and put on her traveling clothes. And because everything about that day persisted in her memory, she remembered going to the window and leaning down—as she had so many times through her girlhood—for that breath of the lilacs. And at the heart of that memory lived another: a memory of the things that had been in her heart that day, things that had died the slow, unlovely death the man beside her was dying—died because the man by whom she watched had not let them live.
She tried not to think of that now. It seemed wrong, if not to him, to life, to be thinking those things while life was being conquered. But from where she sat she could see the lilacs blowing in the yard across the street—there were lilacs everywhere in their little town, her “home town,” to which she had come back with her sick husband—and she could hear the birds trilling out their joyousness in May. It was the opened window that made it hard to hold back memories of the time when her heart had been like the things out there; hard, even when he was dying, to free herself from the thought of how he had stilled in her heart that song of joyousness in May.
For a long time she sat there tense, trying, as she watched the man whom she had loved dying, not to think of how similarly disintegrating had been the death of her love for that man, not to see in this blight how blighting had been the death of her feeling for life.
She had been watching his face, watching, compelled by the horror of it, the way she could see death eating its way, when, hearing someone enter, she looked up.
It was her mother with coffee. “Drink this, dear. You must take something.”
She went over to the window, instinctively getting as far as she could from the bed on which lay a body that would never take anything again.
Her mother lingered; noticing chairs being carried out into the yard across the street, observing a good deal of bustle about the place, she asked, more to be saying something to her mother than because she wanted to know: “Why, mother, what’s going on over at the Freemans’?”
Her mother turned away; it was a reluctant voice that carried the reply: “It’s a wedding, Marcia.”
She set down the cup, and her handkerchief went to her mouth as though holding something back. “A—you say a wedding, mother? This morning?”
“Yes, a morning wedding, dear; they’re taking the eleven o’clock train.”
“They? Who? Whose wedding, mother?”
“Why, Helen’s, dear; pretty little Helen Freeman.”
She turned upon her mother. “That baby?”
Sadly her mother shook her head. “They don’t stay babies, Marcia. Helen’s nineteen.”
“Going to be married,” she murmured, “at nineteen?”
“You were only twenty, Marcia,” was the low response.
She had turned from the window and was looking at the bed. Again, as her mother reminded her that she had been only twenty, her handkerchief was over her mouth as if pressing something back.
The man on the bed was picking at the covering. Instinctively she hastened to him, so hard was it to realize, when he could move like that, that there was nothing more to do for him.
Her mother was waiting at the door. “I thought, dear, if—if it came, if anything happened before they go, we would try not to have them know.”
“Helen’s such a dear little thing, and they’re so in love—we don’t want to spoil her wedding.”
She only nodded again, and this time the handkerchief was once more at her mouth, as if pressing something back. Her mother moved a step nearer. “You don’t want me to stay?” For reply she shook her head and turned away.
She went back to her place at the far side of the bed, all the while her handkerchief pressed against her mouth. She was sitting there so still, afraid to move, as if moving would stir the thoughts—start them—let the things out of her heart, those things that now she must hold back with all her might because she must not spoil little Helen Freeman’s wedding—the little nineteen-year-old girl who was so in love, thought she was going to be so happy. It seemed that far worse than having Helen know there was a death across the street would be letting loose those things that were in her heart.
The dying man’s mouth had fallen open. She wondered if she ought to close it. It looked so terrible that way that it seemed cruel to leave it so. But perhaps if she closed it he could not breathe. Quick tears came in the thought of how helpless one was—how all unguarded against unlovely things—when life was giving way to death.
It made her so sorry for him! She raised him up, carefully wiped his face about the mouth, and, more than that, with one of those swift impulses of her passionate nature she tried to think kind things about him. She wanted to be tender to a man who was dying.
He had never struck her. He had not wasted in drink and gambling the money to give her food and clothing. Think of the men who did that! Indeed, he had been what the world would call a “good husband.” Had she ever, as people said, wanted for anything?
Had she ever—wanted for anything? Had she ever—wanted for anything? It kept saying itself over and over, prying at the very door it had been meant to hold shut. Wanted for anything—wanted for anything?
She heard carriages and motors across the street. Had it begun? Was it over? Married at church and now coming home for the wedding breakfast? She could have seen across by turning her head that way. She did not; her hands were upon her breast—tight—trying to hold things in there. Why, beside her a man was dying—and across the street there was a wedding! All of one’s faith in life—best of one’s feeling —should go to the man here who was dying and the girl over there happy on her wedding morning. But as the laughter from across the street came up to her, laughter of joy in youth that seemed to pass in waves over the bed and then envelop her, she could do nothing but meet the laughter with sobs.
Then another sound penetrated laughter and sobs. Quickly realizing that he was choking, she raised his head and moved it, her hot tears falling upon his face and mingling with the sweat of death that was there.
She was on her knees now, supporting him. It seemed she must hold him up. Death was very close. He would die if she did not hold him up, and the life in her had that deep instinct of life for fighting for every second it can gain from death.
His face had become so misshapen it seemed wrong to look at it. A long time passed while she was looking down at his hand. It kept moving a little—just because for so many years it had been moving, because muscles and nerves were used to moving. She was thinking of death; of how all human hands come to those last purposeless movements. She was thinking of what it must mean to one who loved; mean, after the love and tenderness of a life-time, to watch the last movements of hands that had caressed and served.
Raising her head at last, she, too, needing breath, she saw that across the street they were having breakfast out on the big porch. Some of them had finished and were out on the lawn. They moved in and out among the lilac bushes, groups of boys and girls, laughing, sunshine falling lavishly upon them.
She again wiped the dying man’s face, and when she looked back after that she saw Helen, the happy little bride. She was standing at the head of the steps, beside her the man she had just married —the way he was looking down at her told who he was. Helen was laughing and calling out to her friends in the yard. Then she looked up to the man beside her. Ah, yes—that look she knew. She had looked that way, she supposed. She had felt that way.
And all the while it was going on! Helen was not the only bride in the world that day. That very day—every day—they were turning those radiant, believing faces to life. She had turned a radiant, believing face to life. She had been sure—as Helen was sure—as they all were sure. Oh, yes, loves failed, they knew. How sad it was, they would say—then quickly turn that glowing, trusting face back to life, smiling out their thankfulness that no such thing could come to them.
It seemed to her that more cruel than death were those wiles of life. The man she was holding choked again, and mechanically, almost unconsciously, she moved his head; but her protecting instinct and her sorrow were with the little bride across the street. She wanted to cry out to her: “But don’t think life’s going to give you what it promises! It just gets you—with promises—then crawls away and leaves you there to starve!”
A force strong as that sweeping the man out from life swept her back to it, back into those days before she had been driven to defending herself by trying to deaden herself, days before she had won any ground in the devastating struggle to bear life by not expecting great things of it. That light on the little bride’s face had touched it to life: the joyous, confident demand upon life, and then the chill which little by little had crept on, much as this chill of death had in the last few hours crept upon the man whom now in a short time it would have claimed. But how strange that the things in her heart she had thought safely dead should be live enough yet for suffering! She flinched now in just the memory of how, stepping out eagerly into love’s country, she had, time after time, been pushed back; memory of how she had stretched out her hands with gifts that were not wanted, were not even seen, and had been left there—shamed—not knowing what to do with those offerings she had borne with so proud a joyousness.
Oh, no, he had never struck her; food and clothing for her body had been provided; the world would call him a good husband. But one thing he had not done. He had not claimed what she had to give him. Unclaimed, it tortured her until it had warped her to that state where life is bearable.
As again she did for him a little service, and saw the sure signs of how close was the moment when there would be nothing more for her hands to do for him, she tried again to do him the deeper service, send with him the kindly thought it seemed each human being must want to take with him from life. Outraged at herself, frantically resolved to turn to him—be kind, she called upon the thought of how there had never been any other woman, how he had been, as they put it, true to her. But out from that broke the thought that it might be easier to think the tender things had it been otherwise: if in some way, at some time, he had been true to life; if he had found something somewhere, given something to someone. He had been true to her for the same reason he had failed her. She was sure she could not be wrong in feeling that the tenderness she called for in vain now would have found its way from some spring in her heart had she been able to feel he had had greater gifts for someone else than he had had for her.
All the while came the laughter from across the street. Helen was out on the green now with her friends; they were gathered round her as she stood before a lilac tree—it seemed to be some happy little ceremony. She had a feeling of their being just an organic part of the May morning. With what pure, unhurt joy in life they laughed!
Of a sudden it seemed to the woman supporting the dying man that the rest of it would not matter if only she could win back from life a feeling of gladness in them. Through the sterile years even her love for love, her faith in joy, had withered. In some way she did not understand he had gone deeper than killing her love for him. He had blighted her whole feeling for life. Something at the center had hardened, so that there had not even been what she felt would have been the more noble rather than the less virtuous part, an impulse to fight to keep alive the faith—hope—that some time she must find it.
Now the little bride had gone indoors. Getting ready to go away? Leaving the laughing friends—the loving mother—going now to take what life had for her? Turning that glowing, confident face to—what? The tears life has for life fell to the hand life had let go; it seemed to her so sad, so infinitely more sad than death, the way they hoped, the way they dared—their glowing faces, confident steps—over and over again that same old rejoicing in life’s promises, that same world-old tragic trust.
But it was a softer face, a face more tender than tragic which a moment later bent over the man whose breath still came. There had been, and so simply wrought that she knew of no change, a cunning inversion from bitter sorrow that life would not keep the promises to a passionate wish that it might—hope that it would! Her lips were moving; and the prayer was not for the man who was leaving life, nor for herself, defrauded by it, but: “Be good to them, Life—oh, tender with them —knowing so little—asking so much!”
Into that same moment came the realization that these were his last breaths. Should she call her mother? It would seem she should not be alone, yet … She looked away, for in that last moment death was twisting life so ruthlessly, and she saw that it had been as she supposed. Helen had gone in to change her dress; now she was out on the porch, ready to go, the man to whom she turned for love and life beside her, her mother hovering on the other side, an arm about her, and all around her the friends, not laughing now, silenced by the moment.
The last sound of life in the dying man’s throat she scarcely heard, held by that look on the happy girl’s face as she walked down to the carriage.