She longed for her husband’s love, but lived always in the knowledge that one had been there before her.
Dateline: February 1929
I never saw Lila Lane. I first heard of her when I came to Lanesville to teach school. She had passed away the spring before, leaving a disconsolate husband and four babies. The sad event had been the occasion of much discussion, and expressions of sympathy in the community. Henry Dunne, the bereft one, was a cashier in the Lanesville bank. He was plodding along; had maintained his house and slept there, while Lila’s mother cared for the children in her home.
Beautiful Lila Lane! I do not recall ever hearing her spoken of as Lila Dunne although she had been married for over five years when she died.
Lila Lane—a lovely name—it reminded one of Annabel Lee. But had I dreamed of the shadow that name was to cast over at least six years of my life, I should never have thought it beautiful.
My second school year in Lanesville was well under way when Henry Dunne began paying attention to me. I had never been a popular girl with men; was always a bookworm and, at twenty-four, had come to consider myself a settled school ma’am with slight hope of winning a husband. I was flattered by his attentions, and the fact that they were not over-ardent was lost on me because of my inexperience.
He proposed in March, and we planned to marry the last of May, when school closed.
I admit that real love did not come, but I had high hopes of what I would mean to his lonely heart and his motherless boys.
They were dear children. I love them still: Junior six, Wayne and Lane, twins, four and Jack Dimples, two, were when I came into their lives. To them I gave ungrudgingly six years of my precious twenties—and giving begets love.
Lila’s lilacs were blooming the second time since her going when Henry took me to his home. Not my home, but his—and Lila’s! The house was complete; only my personal effects were taken there with me. Even my piano was left at mother’s home in Arco, ten miles from Lanesville. Lila’s piano was there and, of course, her sons would use it.
I was not long in realizing my status. I was married, but could never hope to mean much to my husband. Henry the plodder, quiet and utterly respectable, was capable of a great love—but I was not its star! It had already been bestowed, and could not be duplicated. The children were brought home immediately, and I came to know that the father had chosen an educated, fairly well-cultured woman as a homemaker for his sons, but not as a mate for himself. He lived for and through his boys. They were Lila’s gift; parts of her very self left for him to rear and love.
As I look back now, my bewilderment was pitiful. Such loneliness—marriage such a disappointment! I felt that I must win a place in his life—I must know companionship. The key, it seemed to me, was the boys. I would devote myself to them and surely, through them, I could reach his soul. He was kind, considerate and a gentleman; but above all he was a father to Lila’s sons. He would never consider our having a child—Lila had died when jack was three days old. And he was right. A cashier’s salary in a small bank does not run to large families.
I could confide in no one. Mother and Dad would never know from me. Sometimes I felt that Henry’s mother understood my difficult position. We never discussed the matter, but her quiet sympathy drew me very near to Mother Dunne. She knew that no woman could take Lila’s place in Henry’s affections. Five years passed—busy years. Not positively unhappy, but not glorious as the first years of marriage should be. There was the portrait of Lila in the living room. Almost life-size, radiant, and glowing with youth.
Her parents had had it done, and it was a beautiful likeness to be kept before her sons. I wished it had been hung somewhere else. I never thought of asking Henry to remove it—it was there before I was. I came to hate the name and face of the woman who had left such an indelible mark on a man’s life, who had presented her gifts and taken her flight, leaving the cares of a family but none of its possessive joy, to her successor.
At twenty-eight, I awoke to the fact that I was not keeping up with the times, I had neglected study and outside interests, becoming absorbed in household routine. The boys were growing up a bit, and were a little less care to me. Junior’s broken arm and the twins’ tonsil operations had limited any expenditure for dress. I had really forgotten the lure of clothes for a time. Meeting a friend of my own age, I envied her bobbed hair, short skirts and neat ankles. I became painfully aware that I needed the assurance that good appearance brings to a woman.
All I can say is that I awoke. I did not even ask Henry’s opinion, as to bobbing my hair; I went to the barber shop and had it done. I shortened my dresses and bought new slippers and hosiery on Henry’s charge account. It was a belated blooming; but at twenty-eight I looked younger than I had at nineteen. Good teeth and black hair that curled of itself after being cut were my best points. Rumors flew among the kinsfolk. Lilas as well as Henry’s.
“Catherine was looking so well. Do you, suppose—” Dear old Aunt Jenny Lee called and asked if it was so. I laughed at her, and reassured her that Lila would care for their interests. Indeed, I became a bit bitter on the subject.
I interested myself in sewing; an art I had never before bothered about. The simple styles were a boon to a beginner and with the small means available I made quite a showing. Even Henry took notice and on our fifth wedding anniversary raised me to the heights by surprising me with a lovely set of table silver. How pleased I was with it; almost the only thing in the whole establishment that was really mine.
I had missed so much, coming into a complete household—all the dear doing without things that is the right of every bride, and that wonderful sense of accomplishment when love can provide the extras. The table just for two. Every girl looks forward to that! Ours was set for six, and always in the dining room.
I had dreamed of an intimate breakfast, perhaps in the kitchen, but Henry did not go to work early, and he called the boys while breakfast was being prepared. I had hinted that we might have our evening meal alone if I served the boys early, but he saw no particular use in it. He enjoyed having the boys about him, and surely it was easier on me to serve the meals once for all. The appeal for intimacy simply did not register. He had lived all that with Lila in their precious year while waiting for Junior. I would press the matter no further and dropped it as I had so many of my pet ideas.
As a bride I had never felt free to do my work in my own way. Relatives, both Lanes and Dunnes, were prone to drop in any time–to see the boys, of course—and how could they help noticing the housekeeper? (Sometimes a teacher isn’t much of a housekeeper–she has a lot to learn.) I could read their glances like a book. I was kept in a mental strain and at high tension. By effort and will I learned to drive my work instead of being driven by it.
I drilled good manners and regular habits into the boys from the first, with Henry’s hearty approval. They must be well-bred. I had given up hopes of winning the father and absorbed myself in the children. How interested I was in their schoolwork! Even baby Jack was in school now, and insisted on being called Jacks Demps, rather than Dimples.
Then, all unexpected, the gift! What might it not portend? Perhaps time had helped, and my untiring service to him and his had found a response. My heart was light, I might know true marriage yet, out of all this groping. But disillusion followed fast, so cruel after raised hopes! I hardly know how to tell it.
Just a few nights after our anniversary I was wakened from deep sleep by Henry’s folding me in his arms, oh so tenderly, so lovingly. I lay quiet, fearing it was a dream. But no, I was surely awake and it was true! Only love could embrace me so! Happiness at last! Then, from heaven itself, I was dashed into the depths of hell and hate, for Henry murmured his dream, “Lila, Lila!” Instantly I became furiously angry. I almost struck him as he lay asleep, but controlled the impulse.All my hope of winning his love died that night.
I was only Hagar, handmaiden to Lila’s Sarah, the beloved wife. The gift was but an acknowledgment of faithful service, from the master to his servant. A just God would deliver me. At least I would suffer no longer. I swept my heart clean, and actually felt a relief to be rid of the bitter taste of ruined hopes. I never told Henry of the incident. He probably cherished that dream for days, and I was really indifferent toward him now. My new attitude was apparently unnoticed and I fully understood, at last, that he was simply oblivious of me. But all trials have their compensations. When hope leaves, fear goes along. Henceforth, I would live my own life.
And love came, that very June, less than a month after my resignation. On a Friday I had washed my hair and was resting after lunch. Someone knocked at the back door. I rose and went to the kitchen. On the porch stood a neatly dressed man.
“Could I have a cup of coffee?” he asked politely.
I hesitated a second. Then saying, “I will have to heat it,” I went to the stove, lighted it, and put on the percolator. I recall a moment of confusion as I realized that he had opened the screen door and had come in.
I turned from the stove to hear him say, “Never mind now, Catherine.”
I was amazed. It was some one who knew me! “Who is it?” I cried.
“Page! Page!” I grabbed both his hands and shook them heartily. “Why, you haven’t changed a bit and yet I didn’t know you. When did you come? It’s fifteen years since I saw you.” And dear old Page stood, holding my hands until I had recovered somewhat and offered to retrieve them. But, our eyes had met; our hearts had spoken. I had marked him for my own.
My father came in, with Henry’s boys about him and found us there by the kitchen table. He had a big laugh over the joke he had played on me. Page had arrived in Arco the evening before, unexpectedly. Dad had brought him to Lanesville and, parking the car down the street, sent him in to see if I would recognize him.
Page Tyler was not a cousin at all.
His mother had married Uncle Frederick Wilson when Page was three. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was my cousin. In the family correspondence, carried on chiefly by the wives, Page had been regarded as a cousin also. We used to exchange cards and enclose notes in our mothers’ letters. I had always hoped to visit them in Philadelphia. My history lessons were made wonderful by postcards from Aunt Kate, showing Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the home of Betsy Ross and other historic views.
The summer I was fifteen, Dad went east to visit his brother and took me with him. How I enjoyed the trip, meeting my uncle, aunt and cousin Elizabeth who was my own age. Page was twenty. Of course I met him, too, but he didn’t see me. He was working days and spent most of his evenings with a divinity named Helen, in the next block.
Elizabeth knew her way about, and chaperoned Dad and me on our sightseeing. I really became acquainted with her. She visited us the next year, but after Uncle Fred’s death, family letters had been few and far between. We knew Page had been with the Army inFrance, and his mother had passed away soon after his return. Since then, we had heard nothing. I thought of them once in a while; had supposed he and Elizabeth were both married.
Since my marriage, I had not expected ever to see them again. Here he was, out in the Middle West, thirty-five, and still unmarried. He and Elizabeth were making a home together in the very house in which we had visited. How we chatted and laughed and exclaimed. I introduced him to the boys, but they were more interested in “Dad” as they always called my father. He made much of them, having no grandchildren of his own. A shower was threatening, and Dad must needs start home. He never got that car wet!
“You must come over while Page is here. Can’t you all come Sunday?” father asked as he was leaving.
Then answered my new self, “I’d go home with you now if there was room, and stay till Sunday.”
“We’ve ridden three in the roadster many a time. Plenty-of room, if you can get away.”
“Well, I can be ready in a few minutes,” I answer promptly.
I did not stop to bother about what Henry would think or say. I called Aunt Jenny Lee on the phone, and made her promise to come over right away to look after the house for me. I dressed, packed a bag for two days, and announced myself ready.
“Junior, tell your father that I have gone to visit with my cousin, at mother’s, till Sunday. You may come with him and spend the day.”
The car moved away as it began to sprinkle. I had not waited for Jenny Lee to arrive, and only now thought that I should have called Henry at the bank . Indeed, I was far gone!
What is more chummy than three in a roadster? Page’s arm along the back of the seat. I felt like Cinderella herself, going so suddenly on a holiday. A vacation not waited for, or planned for, jlust dropped into my lap!
I felt a load lifted. It was magic! I was going home with Dad, a daughter once more in mother’s home, and Page as a house guest! I would enjoy every minute of it refusing to look ahead. No dreary future was going to mar this perfect present.
We arrived at Arco as it began to rain in earnest. Mother was quite surprised to see me.
“I am so glad you came. You ought to get away oftener,” she told me.
Strawberries for supper! I refused to wonder what Jenny Lee was serving, or what Henry had thought when he came home. The unusual was quite upsetting to him.
Cloudy and dark early for June, we turned on the radio, and settled to talk. The static was bad, but no one listened anyway. Page was a good talker. He spoke of the East—of changes since we were there. He had come West in his car for his vacation. He had not heard from us for years, but had always wanted to see our Mississippi Riverand had decided the trip was worth while in itself. He had been delighted to find Uncle Cal(as he called Dad) in good health, with me living near. He had not met mother before. He talked, Mother and Dad listened, but I sat across the library table from him and simply loved him with my eyes! At ten, the folks were yawning and began to close up the house for the night. We were left alone—I must go. He rose and as I passed him at the foot of the stairs, was suddenly in his arms. Our lips met.
Catherine, I think the world of you.” A quick response, and I was gone; speeding up the stairs as if pursued by furies.
“Page, Page Tyler,” abrupt, individual name. No oily alliteration like Lila Lane. Cuddled in my bed, I did not attempt to sleep, but lay there communing with my loved one downstairs.
Conscience came to question. “You? A married woman? Guilty of loving another than your husband?
I smothered it down and defended myself. But convictions are strong, and I knew I would never let my heart have its way. After all, one cannot live her own life! I compromised. I must have these few hours till Sunday. Then I would go back to Lanesville to serve my term. My marriage ceremony had become a prison sentence. “As long as ye both shall live!”
Sleep came. It was morning; I could scarcely wait to get downstairs to see Page. It had cleared beautifully, and we planned a morning drive to the great river in Page’s car.
Such a drive. Our love was reflected in everything—the raindrops on the trees, the sun shining through them—all indelibly stamped on my memory!
A wonderful talk we had, down beside my old friend, the Father of Waters. We stopped the car and, for an hour or more told and retold old stories.
You know as well as I do, I was storing away each precious minute to carry back with me; what he said, how he looked, that trick of the eyebrow when speaking.
He declared his love. He had met his dream girl. Our questioning hearts demanded an answer.
“Why didn’t I come sooner? Oh, Catherine, must we meet and love only to pass on?” he asked, while my heart cried out in real anguish: “Why didn’t I stay free till love came?”
Bitterly I blamed myself for this. I knew of love; believed in it; hoped for it, but had married without it.
Home for lunch. Could it be only twenty-four hours since I sat at Henry’s table, a drab, person with no premonition of the thrills, the joy, and the pain I had experienced since?
Dad was going to the farm. He dragged Page along. Mother was calling on several sick friends and drafted me to accompany her. Such a long afternoon! Months have seemed shorter. But, at last, mother’s list was ended, and we started home. I was ashamed of myself for walking so fast and slackened my pace several times for mother to keep up with me.
The men were back. I went flat, as we set about preparing supper. How could Page sit so calmly talking to Dad? He certainly seemed casual, compared with the turmoil inside me. But, the evening work finished, I hurried out to the porch. I must see him alone once more, if only for a moment. He made room for me on the swing. Then I knew what he was going through, too. Oh, the comfort of love’s arms about one, when the heart is torn with parting. Dad and mother did not come out; they looked at the paper and went to bed.
We sat late—I could no longer refuse to look ahead.
“Dearest—what can we do?” begged Page.
“Do? I see nothing to do. We would never be happy with a divorce. Besides, what grounds could I get a divorce on? In the eyes of the world, Henry is a model husband, and one cannot name a deceased wife as co-respondent.”
“But, Catherine! I’m going Tuesday, and how can I leave you here?”
“You must, Page. We have found the treasure, but we can only look upon it and leave it. I pray that some day we may share it together. I have made an awful mess of life, but it could be worse. I am thankful I have no child, that is one less complication. Oh, Page, help me to do what I know is right.”
“And I cannot even write you words of comfort and hope—and assure you that I am true?” he asked.
“No, no, I have no privacy of mail, whatever. Most wives do not have; they only write what anyone may read, but I shall read between the lines. “Now let’s forget tomorrow, for this evening is our own, and into it we must crowd leaven for a lifetime of love.”
Another night passed, uneasy with conscience and conflict. Too many others were concerned. Mother and Dad would be mortally hurt. And Mother Dunne? The Lanes? The boys? No, I must carry on.
Sunday we would attend church. Henry would be here in time to go also.
The boys were happy to stick around with Dad. I was dressed when they came.
For me the hour had struck; the ball was over. Church service would pass the time without conversation. I’d get through dinner some way, and leave as early as possible—back to the cinders!
Tuesday morning, Page started east. Mother and Dad came along in their car, as far as Lanesville, just to say goodbye one more time to Page. I made coffee and we sat about, pretending to drink it, and teasing Page about his cup of coffee begged at the back door. He declared he must go. It was getting ghastly for both of us. The boys took mother and Dad out to see their new rabbits, and Page and I had a few priceless seconds alone in the dining room.
No embrace, no kisses. He simply took both my hands and looked deep into my eyes, as he said:
“I’ll be waiting. If you change your mind, let me know. If you are ever free, you’ll find me there. This is my promise.”
I could not answer; I must control myself till the folks had gone. Alone at last, I went to bed to regain my composure.
The next few days I lived solely for the cards that drifted back from along his route- then a letter came, saying that he was at home and at work. I went about the house wondering how I could appear at all natural with such a fierce fire burning inside me. I was almost ill and spent my spare time in bed. But the burning eased the conflagration settled to a steady flame to light my life. Henry no longer irritated me. Let him live in his memories! I had memories too!
Our bodies may be prisoners, but our thoughts are free: no walls can keep them in or out. I always spoke to Page as if he were near, and many times I was sure that my thoughts, flying east, met his, winging westward through the night.
Time has a trick of slipping by quickly when we are not anticipating some event. Nearly a year had passed. I heard from Page only at infrequent intervals, through his letters to Dad. I was glad of it; it made my part much easier. Not that it was easy at that. Many a night I stared into the dark, racked by forebodings. Suppose Page should marry! I had no right to expect him to stay free. I was purely selfish. Why, why must I grow old giving my youth to one who did not even care for it, and denying the one who promised to wait? It was not easy.
June again—Henry was going to the county seat on some business for the bank and I went along to do some shopping. It was a lovely day. We left the house at one o’clock; left so casually the house that neither of us would see again. I cannot tell you how it happened—there are so many motor accidents on our hard roads. I recall screaming as the big bus bore down upon us.
I came to in the hospital. Dad was beside me. I knew where I was. I do not think I asked, “Where am I?” and I did not ask, Where is Henry?” I believe I knew before Dad told me a few days later. At least, I felt no surprise, no grief, no relief—just nothing at all.
Mother would be there, and then Dad. I also recall Mother Dunne sitting by me. They came and went, and went and came. It didn’t matter. It must have been weeks before I asked for a mirror. But mother was there when I asked. I caught the look passing over her face, and promptly insisted that the mirror be brought. She tried to prepare me a trifle. I imagined scars and bruises. My face had been spared, but it looked so strange, framed in -white hair instead of black!
I could not grasp it—this white-haired stranger! I held the glass and stared at her till they took the mirror from me.
As I got lots better; things began to clear up. I tried to think it all out, but was too weary to go far at it. By degrees I pieced together that I had my freedom—I had mercifully been spared. The details through my illness—but I was a white-haired woman at thirty-one.
I, who had repressed so much in my life, actually began to babble. I asked mother, I asked the nurses, I even asked the doctor, “Do I look old?” Their reassurances did little good. It only mattered what Page would think!
I went from the hospital to mother. They were so kind. Dad looked after everything for me. Henry’s boys had gone to live with their grandmother Lane. The house was sold, also the furnishings.
When I was asked what I wished to have from the house, I cried out in my weakness, “Nothing! I can think of nothing there that I ever want to see again.” It was not mentioned afterward.
There was money placed in my account at the Arco bank. Some of it was life insurance. I accepted what was given, as back wages for six years’ housekeeping services, but I asked no particulars.
By Christmas I was myself again, in health and spirits. My parents were more than content to have me at home. I had not written to Page of the turn affairs had taken and I knew Dad had probably never thought of doing so either. I was quite sensitive about my hair—but most of the curious of our town had called and gaped—as I drove myself to attend the Christmas service at the church. Modern hats pull low, thank goodness!
I must begin to look ahead. One cannot drift always. How I had longed to be free, and how I had imagined my flight to Page if ever freedom came! But it had come at a price. My black hair had taken my self-confidence with it, when it went. As long as I kept silent, I still had Page. If he knew it—what then? His caring had come to be so much a part of me. How could I face the empty years if deprived of it? Again in my musings I would consider myself fortunate. How many women burdened with family cares, would be glad of the opportunity to cut loose from it all and start anew in their early thirties.
And love drew me like a magnet. I could not plan my life until I knew. An idea formed itself and I carried it out. It was not fair to Page to wait longer. I expressed a wish to go east and my parents were only too pleased to have me wish for anything, once more. They supposed I was going straight to Elizabeth’s home, but I knew better. I went to Philadelphia the first week in April.
After resting from the ride, I went apartment hunting. I must have a home—a retreat to live or die in. I must feel established before letting Page know I was near, and he should do the wooing. If this meant marriage, he must be sure about wanting me. After all, I had only been with him two days—a small foundation for the hopes I was building. He might be married even now!
I set June first for the date to announce myself. In the meantime, the apartment must fill my time and thoughts. Afterward, I would look for employment if—
Those three rooms meant a chance, to express my pent-up urge for nesting. There was a flurry of shopping and an orgy of paint and enamel. I bought only essentials, and everything secondhand, that I might scrub and paint to my heart’s content. Every piece in the place was mine, which meant so much to me. I made curtains and bought barely enough dishes to serve three on a painted breakfast table. Neat and plain, but bare: that was as I wanted it, room for more as I added it.
But stretch it out as I might, time began to seem slow. The control it took to keep away from a telephone! According to Arco and Lanesville standards, a widow is not a free woman for at least a year. I had set June first, and I would wait.
At last it came and I dated the note composed weeks before:
DEAR PAGE :
I am living alone at —Pearl Street. I shall he delighted to have you and Elizabeth take dinner with me Saturday, June fourth, at seven.
A motor accident last summer resulted fatally for Henry Dunne, and the shock and illness following is responsible for the turning of my hair from black to white. The price perhaps!
If your plans are already made for this weekend, let me know when you can come, as ever,
CATHERINE WILSON DUNNE.
I mailed it early; I knew he would receive it that evening. How would he react? I had to tell him about my hair at once. I could not let him come to me without some warning. I must not look for a reply before Friday evening or Saturday morning—a century to wait!
I would be very formal, even distant, until I saw his attitude. If he showed the least hesitation—
And what do you know about it? Thursday morning, a night letter came:
Saturday too far off. Thursday at six-thirty, alone—Must see you.
Today—this very day. Well, I must not expect too much! I must remember—
Bless his heart, two days are too long! What would he say when he learned I had been two months in his own city? And six-thirty! That meant coming straight from his work, for they lived well out of the business section. I must have supper ready. Such happiness! I read it again, it seemed eager. Surely he read all my note?
Well, all days come to an end, no matter how endless they promise to be. The house and supper were ready. I was aquiver with suppressed excitement. My hair was dressed—it was still curly—but how I wished it were black, as Page had loved it!
He was coming—he was at the door! I must he calm—and formal. Then he was inside, and I was in his arms. My heart was bursting.
“Catherine, Catherine, my dear girl! Have you really come to me at last?” Thrills, thrills, thrills!
I drew back in his arms. “So glad to see you, Page! But aren’t you hungry?”
Only hungry for you, darling. I’ve starved so long.” At last we came to enough to take a chair (not chairs). His manner had satisfied me that he surely did care for me, but I must ask, still sheltered in his arms, if it didn’t really matter.
“Don’t you mind at all, Page, about my hair?”
You little goose! You called it the price—well, I call it a bargain. Last night, after I read your letter, I was full of thoughts of how it might have been your sight, your hearing or even your life itself. I loved the black hair, but I coveted my neighbor’s wife—so God is good, after all!
“Now we must do some deciding right here tonight. How soon can you be legally mine, dear lady?”
“I am yours and have been for two years, but what aboutElizabeth? She has kept your home so long—and, Page, I just can’t go into another woman’s house. If you would come here—”
“Elizabethis going to marry Sid this fall anyway. They are building now. I’ll get Aunt Jane to stay withElizabeth till her wedding, and we’ll camp right here. The house belongs to me, and we will move in when they go to their new place. How about it? Say when—is it Saturday?”
And if you knew Page you would know that it was Saturday. Aunt Jane did not have to stay with Elizabeth, after all; for Sid stayed. They did some quick deciding, too, and we had a double ceremony at the rectory.
We are still here in the nest, but the new house is completed.
Sid and Elizabeth are moving next week, and we cannot find an excuse for lingering.
I cannot picture to you the glory of these months, love interchanging, our thoughts in common, our table for two—sharing our lives.
Was it worth waiting for? We agree that it was.
Oh, darling nest, I shall cherish your memory always! But we shall be needing the yard
and trees next summer; for babies demand fresh air and sunshine, and ours must have the best!
Copyright © 1929, 2012 by BroadLit