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The Angry Wife
By Pearl S. Buck
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1947 Pearl S. Buck
All rights reserved.
"we are fortunate," Pierce Delaney said to his wife.
She did not answer. Outside the window open by her couch, the deep stillness of late October afternoon lay across the landscape of Malvern. The air was warm and fragrant. The servants had been picking the purple grapes. She could not learn to call them servants instead of slaves. Pierce was going to pay them wages. Georgia, her own maid, would get wages!
"Aren't we fortunate, Luce?" Pierce's big voice demanded.
"I wish you wouldn't call me Luce," she answered. "I like my own name."
"Lucinda," he said, smiling. "It's such a prim name."
"Nevertheless, it's my name," she replied.
But he could not quarrel even in fun. He wanted peace, now; as long as he lived he wanted only peace. He stood before the high window and gazed at the landscape for which he had been as homesick, all during the war, as he had been even for his family. There were not many in the world to match it for beauty. Beyond the rich level lands of his farms the foothills rose, softly wooded, into the blue heights of the Alleghenies. It was country fit for all his dreams of peace and he would spend his life in fulfilling them. Only to live, after these years, would be enough, but to live here was heaven.
Without turning he spoke. "The war is over, Tom and I are both alive, the house isn't in ruins. Not many families have as much!"
At the sound of Lucinda's voice he wheeled. She was lying on her rose satin sofa, her white arms flung above her head, her white hands clasped. Her slender body was hidden in a froth of creamy lace and silk, except for her little bare feet.
He took off the stiff leather belt of his uniform, threw it on the floor and went across the bedroom. He knelt beside her and lifted her into his arms. The moment stood still for him, clear and deep. For the first time he felt sure of being alive. He was at home again, in his own house, with Lucinda, his wife. His two children, his sons, were sound and full of health. Even the work on the land had not stopped. Everything he possessed had miraculously escaped destruction. His mind raced back over the years through which he had just passed. They were already compressed into a single experience of torture, in which he saw the faces of his own men whom he had not often been able to save. They were not all dead—a few had escaped, many more lay in hospitals. But most of them were dead. Kneeling there with his face in the laces upon his wife's bosom, he read upon his brain the figures of the dead. They were so young! This was their tragedy—so young to die for so vague a cause. Thousands of young boys in uniforms had died to compel the nation to remain a union, thousands in grey had died for the right of a state to be free if it liked. Somewhere between them the fate of black men and women had been entangled.
Feeling the beat of Lucinda's heart under his lips, aware of the softness of her flesh, breathing in her scent, he asked himself if even the death of many could hold united those who wanted to be free of one another. It might have been easier if he and his family had lived in the high North or the deep South. But Malvern, his inheritance, lay in the borderland. Men from the south and the north had swept across the mountains to rest here in Malvern Valley, under the great oaks, even upon the verandas of the house. He had been home for a few days of furlough when Grant's men had come marching by, and looking down on them from an attic window, hiding himself, he had been horrified to see how much his enemies looked like his own men, There was only the slight outward difference of the uniform. The boys' faces were the same.
More than Malvern lay in the border country. In the months when the war drew nearer, grim and inevitable, he had had to decide whether, when war was declared, he would go North or South. He hated slavery, while he loved his own slaves. Some deep conservatism in his being, love of form and order, necessity to preserve and persist, made him know that union was essential for their country, still so new. A handful of states, flying apart in quarrels, would mean early death to the nation. But he had stayed by the South. The last moment had come, and in its clarity Lucinda and Malvern had outweighed all else. Heart and not head had decided. He knew that he would fight and perhaps die for her, here in his house. But Tom, his brother, had gone North.
"When do you think Tom will get home?" Lucinda asked.
She curled herself into his arms. When she made herself small in his arms his heart quivered with tenderness. It seemed impossible that she had borne him two sons. He thought of them playing somewhere about the place, sturdy, blond, gay and quarrelsome, affectionate and rebellious, as he and Tom had been in this house of their fathers. By her own strength Lucinda had kept them untouched by the miseries of the war. She was a strong little thing!
"Joe will be here at any moment with him," he said. He laid her gently back on her silken pillows and got up and walked to the window. Almost unconsciously he had picked up his belt and now he stood by the window, strapping it about his waist again.
A slender, hard waist, Lucinda thought with pleasure. The war had done him good. She felt idly complacent. She was safe. The house needed new hangings and new carpets. She wanted to cover the mohair furniture in the parlors with satin as soon as she decently could. Enough of the slaves had stayed on, for wages, to make her life still possible. Nothing would be changed.
She felt joy running in her veins. Her heart softened, She got up and went over to the tall figure at the window. He was staring out into the sunshine, his face grave and his steel blue eyes tragic. She hated the look. He was remembering something she did not know.
"Pierce," she said, "Pierce, darling—"
He turned to her quickly, seized her in his arms again and held her with pain and love. How much he could never tell her!
"Everything is going to be the same," she whispered.
"I'll make it the same," he said passionately, and felt his throat grow tight over tears. Strange how a man could go through death again and again, could lose what he loved most! For in the hour of battle he had loved his men better than anything. There had been moments when if sacrifice of himself and his wife and his sons, his house and lands, all that he was fighting for, could have saved the losing day, he would have let them all go into the loss, for victory's sake. Yet he had never wept, or wanted to weep, as he did now, when he had come home to his unchanged house. It was so exactly the same that he could not keep back his tears. But this Lucinda could not understand, and for no fault of her own. They would have had to live through the same things to have had the same understanding and he could only be thankful that she had stayed safely at home.
The door opened. Someone stood on the threshold an instant, saw them and closed the door.
Lucinda pulled herself out of his arms and smoothed her straight fair hair. "Come in, Georgia," she called.
Georgia opened the door gently and stood, hesitating and shy, aware that she had interrupted a scene of love. Pierce saw the awareness in her dark eyes, in the half smile of her lips, in the timidity of her bearing. She looked at Lucinda and he saw what he had not known before, that she was afraid of her mistress.
"It's all right, Georgia," he said kindly.
"I declare I didn't know you were in here, Miss Lucie," the dark girl said.
"Don't come in without knocking, Georgia," Lucinda said sharply.
"I did knock, Miss Lucie," Georgia said in her even, gentle voice. "When I heard no answer I came in. I was looking for you and Master Pierce to say that Joe has come ahead to tell that they'll be here in just a few minutes. He says Master Tom isn't hurt by wounds but he's starved near to death."
The tears brimmed her great eyes and hung on her lashes. These lashes, black and long, held the drops and she put up her hand and wiped them away.
"Starved?" Lucinda repeated.
"It's that damned prison," Pierce muttered. He turned to Georgia. "Tell Annie to have some warm milk ready. A half cup of milk with brandy will do him more good than anything. You can't feed a starving man real food. God, I knew they were starving the Yankee prisoners—but my own brother!"
"It comes of his joining the North," Lucinda said bitterly. "If he'd—"
"Never mind now, sweet," Pierce interrupted her. "The war's over."
"I'll hate the Yankees as long as I live," she retorted.
Georgia went away. The moment which she had interrupted was gone and Pierce bent to kiss his wife quickly. "I'll go along down myself, Luce, and see that everything's ready. I wish I'd gone to meet him. But he sent word he was all right ... Luce, who's going to nurse him?"
"Bettina," Lucinda replied. She sat down in her rose colored chair. The satin was grayed and Georgia had darned it carefully. "I couldn't spare Georgia," she went on, "but the boys are so big now I thought we could turn them over to Joe."
"Good," he said.
He hurried out of the room into the wide hall. At the door of the nursery he saw the two sisters, Georgia and Bettina, in whispering talk. They looked alike, both tall, both golden-skinned, dark-eyed, slender. But Bettina, the younger, showed the Indian blood in her black ancestry. Georgia did not. Georgia's face was soft and oval, the cheeks smooth, the lips full. Bettina's cheeks were flat, her nose sharper, her eyes keener, her hair less curly. Where the two girls had come from Pierce did not know, except that they had been part of Lucinda's father's estate, and when he died they were for sale. He had bought them because Lucinda wanted them. "Wonderful workers," Lucinda had called them. He scarcely knew them, because a month after they had come into the house he had gone to war.
"Bettina!" he said abruptly. There was something so delicate, so sensitively aware of him in the faces the two women turned to him that he was disconcerted. He had seen this delicacy often enough in the faces of slaves, even wholly ignorant ones, a refinement of the human being so extreme that he was always made uncomfortable by it. It was the result of utter dependence, the wisdom of creatures who could only exist by pleasing their masters. But in these two women it was pathetic and shameful, because they were not ignorant. He must ask Lucinda why they were not ignorant.
"Did you want something, Master Pierce?" Bettina asked. Their voices were alike, deep and soft.
"You're to take care of my brother."
"Yes, Master Pierce," Bettina said.
Pierce paused. "You two," he said abruptly, "don't call my brother and me masters. I lost the war—Tom won. I can't be called master any more—Tom won't want to be, if I know him."
"What shall we call you, sir?" Bettina asked.
It was disconcerting that both of them spoke with a clear English accent, without a trace of the shambling dialect of slaves. It was suddenly monstrous that he had bought these women. But he had not heard them speak when he bought them. They had simply stood hand in hand, their heads downcast.
"You—you can just call me mister," he said abruptly.
"Yes, sir," they breathed. They looked at one another. He saw they would simply call him nothing, ending every sentence with "sir."
He looked out of the window. A slow procession was winding along the road between the oaks—Tom! He ran down the stairs, threw open the front door, leaped the stone steps and lifted from the litter his brother. But could this be a human creature, this tall stick, this gangling monkey, this handful of bones, loose in a bag of skin?
"Tom!" he muttered strangling, "Tom, boy, you're home!" Then he said sternly. "Look here, we'll soon have you—you fed—well again—"
The dark skeleton face could not smile. The fleshless lips were drawn back from his teeth, fixed in a grin of agony. Tom's voice came in a faint gasp:
Pierce carried his brother up the steps, and was horrified to feel the looseness with which Tom's head upon the stem-like neck hung over his arm. His own people had done this—in a secessionist prison they had starved his brother! He had tried to reach through the walls of war to save Tom, but hatred had been stronger than love. Then he pushed aside anger and pain, in the way he had learned to do, to save his own being. Fifty thousand men had been starved to death in those prisons, but Tom was still one of the living. And the war was over.
"Everything is going to be all right, Tom," he said gently.
He carried his brother through the great dim hall, up the stairs into the west bedroom. The room was full of late sunshine, and on the hearth a fire burned. Bettina stood at the bedside, holding the sheets ready, and Georgia moved the copper warming pan to and fro. Georgia was crying silently, but Bettina's face was grave. She put out her arms and slipped them under Tom's bony frame, and lowered his head gently to the pillows. Then she drew the covers over him.
"Where's the brandy milk?" Pierce demanded.
"Here, sir," she said.
A spirit lamp stood on the table, and she poured the milk from a small skillet into a blue flowered cup set in a saucer.
The ghastly lips drew back still further over Tom's strong white teeth. "My cup—" he whispered.
"Annie told me it was, sir," Bettina said softly. She took up a thin old silver spoon and began to feed the milk to him.
"Don't—know you," Tom whispered.
"Bettina," Pierce said. "I got her—and Georgia—after you left home, Tom, I reckon. It was just before the war. Of course, they're free now, working for wages."
"Sir," Bettina begged him, "it doesn't matter."
Across the hall Lucinda's voice floated clearly. "Georgia, Georgia!"
"Don't let her come in yet," Pierce said.
"No, sir," Georgia agreed. She wiped her eyes and hurried out of the room.
Bettina slipped to her knees. Tom was swallowing drop by drop, as she fed him. He looked up at his brother from bottomless eyes.
"I can't—eat," he whispered, and two small thick tears forced themselves from under his papery eyelids.
"You'll be eating everything a month from now," Pierce said.
"I thought I'd die," Tom whispered. He longed to speak, but Pierce would not let him.
"Don't think about it," he urged. "Just rest, Tom—it's all over."
Drop by drop from the silver spoon Bettina fed him. Pierce gazing down at Tom's face saw her slender hand holding the spoon steadily, putting the drops between the waiting lips until the cup was empty.
In the warm silence Tom's eyes closed. Bettina looked up. "He's falling asleep, sir," she whispered. "'Tis the best thing."
She rose and noiselessly drew the old red velvet curtain across the western windows. "I've tried to get a doctor from Charlottesville," Pierce whispered back. "But there's not one even there."
"We'll heal him ourselves, sir," Bettina said.
"It'll be mainly on you, Bettina," Pierce said. "Neither I nor Miss Lucie know much about such things."
"I'll do it, sir," she said softly. "I'll make it my task."
Where did she get such words? He wasted a moment in wonder.
"I shan't leave the house tonight," he told her abruptly. "Call me when he wakes."
"I will, sir," she promised. She moved silently and swiftly across the room and held open the door, to his vague annoyance. She was so little like a slave. "You feel quite safe alone with him?" he demanded. "You think you can manage?"
"He's safe," she said calmly. Then she smiled a sweet and bitter smile. "I don't forget it was to free me that he's like this—"
He paused on the threshold, and comprehending these words, saw for an instant into her soul. He was made intensely uncomfortable. "Maybe," he said drily and went on.
He went across the hall to his own bedroom. The door was open into Lucinda's room beyond and he walked to the threshold.
"Ready for dinner?" he asked. It was an idle question. She had put on a pale blue satin, wideskirted. There was lace at her bosom and she was fastening about her neck the gold chain and locket he had given her when he went away to war. Inside it was his picture. He tried to fasten, it for her, and the locket flew open. He saw his own young face, smiling out of the small oval.
"The catch doesn't hold," she said.
"I don't look like that now," he said. "I'll have to get another picture taken for you."
"I like this one," she said, looking up at him.
He looked down at her. "Meaning you don't like the way I look now?"
"Of course I do," she said. She closed the locket with a snap.
He turned away. He knew of old that she would not allow probing beneath the level of her serenity.
"Where are the boys?" he asked abruptly. The house was too quiet.
"They're having their supper," she said.
He was staring out the window again at the mountains and Lucinda saw the bitterness of his mouth.
"How is he, Pierce? Georgia says he looks awful. She said you said I wasn't to come in."
"I don't think there's any use in your seeing him just yet, Luce." He turned, sat down, felt for his pipe and remembered that he was in his wife's room and did not draw it from his pocket. "He'll look a different fellow in a few days. Now he looks what he has been through—like hell."
"Does he know people?"
Excerpted from The Angry Wife by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1947 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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