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"Susan Gaylord is going to be married." She heard the words as clearly as though a voice had spoken them, as though everything was speaking them, the trees about, the bird in the elm tree not far from where she and Mark were standing together in Tramp's Woods. A small early spring cricket chirped it shrilly. And Mark's voice, plain and deep, was asking her humbly, "Susan, will you—could you marry me?"
She had known very well that this was the day and hour Mark had planned. There were no surprises in this man whom she had known from the time he came, a boy, trudging to school in the fifth grade, large and shy, from a nearby farm. They had accompanied each other through school, she always gay and he always large and shy on the edge of the crowd watching her. She had known his eyes were upon her from the first day.
"I want to be married," she said, throwing her head back, "and I want to marry you." He trembled. She could feel his big hands on her shoulders trembling. It was over. She was going to be married. She had decided out of all she wanted to do that most of all she wanted to marry—that first.
Now he was drawing her to him. She felt the unfamiliar pressure of his hard square body against her. She was not small, nor even as slight as most girls were. But against him she felt herself diminished and she enjoyed this strangeness, without being shaken by it, though now he was kissing her passionately and deeply.
"I've wanted to do this ever since that first day in fifth grade," he said.
"You wouldn't even choose me in a kissing game!" she cried, laughing.
"I hate kissing games," he said shortly. "I want kissing to be the real thing." He held her a moment, still and close.
"I know," she whispered.
They stood in long silence. She leaned against him, her restlessness gone. It had been difficult to know what she wanted to do. Long ago old Professor Kincaid had said to her in English class, "Susan, you can write if you want to." But then her father had taken her to New York to see a play and she had wanted to act. For years she felt herself acting upon a stage, making out of herself a character she was not. She could be anyone she chose.
But then there were her hands. She wanted to make with her hands. She liked to feel materials in her hands with which to work—materials more tangible than music, though her father had taught her music. She was restless, not knowing quite what her hands must do because she liked everything. She wanted everything. That was when she decided to marry and have a great many children.
She paused a moment in her thoughts, remembering how her hands had felt last week when she was making that head of her sister. Mary. They had felt swift and skillful, and in her joy she had cried to Mary, "I've got you, Mary! Look!"
Mary came and looked and Susan waited. And while she waited for Mary to speak, to say, surprised, "It's exactly like me, Susan! It's wonderful!" Mary put out her hands and crushed the wet clay into pulp.
"You've made me hideous!" she said passionately. "It's hateful of you!" And she broke into crying and ran out.
Susan, too shocked to speak, had picked up the clay and kneaded it back again into nothing. But all the time she knew by the feel in her hands that what she had made was Mary, whether Mary liked it or not. The palms of her hands burned, remembering, and her fingers opened and closed.
"Mark!" she said. She drew back to look at him. "When we're married shall you mind if I take up sculpture seriously? Of course I wouldn't let it interfere."
"I want you always to do what you want," he said. His clear mild blue eyes grew shy. "I'm not good enough for you, Sue," he said. "I know that. My folks aren't—so much. And I'm not. And you are the smartest girl in the town."
"Oh, nonsense!" she said blithely. "Who am I but a poor professor's daughter?" She wanted suddenly to begin everything at once. She kissed him again, quickly, sharply, and she laughed and seized his hand.
"Let's run!" she cried, and they ran homeward through the wood.
"I'm going to be married!" she thought, to the tune of the ecstasy of her flying feet, "I'm going to be married!"
"I wish, Susan," Mrs. Gaylord said, "that you weren't marrying so young. You're tied down once you marry."
"I want to marry," Susan said.
Her mother did not answer. They were working alone in the sewing room, cutting and basting her wedding gown. They had been alone ever since the breakfast dishes were washed, and all the time she knew that her mother had something to say to her. It would be something indirect and sidewise in meaning, because her mother was shy of talk about marriage. Once, years ago, when Mark had first come to see her, her mother had tried to say something to her. She had come upstairs at midnight, flushed with an exultation she did not understand, and her mother was waiting in her room for her, wrapped in her brown wool dressing gown, her hair in little braids to make tomorrow's waves.
"I feel I should say something to you, Susan," she said, her eyes miserable.
"What is it, Mother?" she asked, gazing at her mother straightly.
"At your age, I mean," her mother said. She could feel her mother's shyness, and she grew hot, and her heart beat hard once or twice.
"You mean about Mark?" she inquired stiffly.
"I mean about any young man," her mother said.
"You needn't mind, Mother," she said quickly. "Mark and I are all right. Besides, I can take care of myself."
"Well," her mother sighed, "as long as you know what I mean—"
She had kissed Susan confusedly, a blush spotting her cheeks. When she went, the belt to her dressing gown trailed so that it caught in the door as it shut.
"Oh, dear!" she called from outside.
"Here—I'll do it," Susan answered, and set her free.
Now, this morning, Susan smiled in half mischief. She had laughed a little to Mark last night. "Mother will feel she has to say something to me when I tell her we are truly engaged," she had told him.
"About me?" he had inquired, soberly. "I can see your dad shooting up his eyebrows and asking me, 'Why should you marry my daughter, young man?' I wouldn't know what to say. I flunked his poetry course, you know, Sue!"
"Mother wouldn't care if you did," she answered, laughing at him. "No, she'll just want to talk to me about life."
"Facts, and all that?" he had inquired solemnly again, and she had nodded, and then they had laughed together....
"Shan't you have a few small tucks at the back of the neck?" her mother asked.
"I've basted them in already," Susan replied.
She whirred the sewing machine down the long seams of the train. Then she tried on the skirt.
"You have a real notion of style," her mother said reluctantly. "You did it so fast it ought not to be right, but it is. I don't see how you do it."
"I feel it, right or wrong, in my fingers," she said.
Yes, she knew that inexplicable feeling of passionate trueness to a line already conceived in her brain. She had it about many things, most of all when she modeled. But it could be there in sewing a seam, in stirring a cake, in arranging flowers in a bowl. There was always the knowledge of how everything should look and be, pictured in her brain, and her fingers were swift and nimble slaves, obedient to the vision. She smiled and added, "I ought to be able to get my own wedding gown right."
She could have bought the gown. Her father said, "Get what you want, Susan," and he gave her a hundred dollars. "It's the price of at least twenty poems. God, how cheap poetry sells! I'm glad your young man deals in real estate instead of verse!" Her father taught literature in the small Eastern college on whose campus they lived, though poetry, he said, was his real work, only he could not convince anybody that it was. But anything he earned from poetry was not to be spent on what he called bread and butter.
She had taken the hundred dollars gratefully and looked carefully at the wedding gowns in all the stores in town. The more she looked the more clearly she saw her own, and that it was none of these. She must make it. She bought, therefore, yards of heavy satin, just off white, but not on the dead side off. This satin, white though it was, was warm white. She paid ten dollars for a very little fine lace, and ten more for a mist of fine tulle.
"Don't you want a pattern?" the clerk had asked.
"No, thank you," she said.
Shaping the stuff to her own body, she forgot that it was her wedding gown in some deeper fulfillment. She even forgot Mark. She was making something. Whenever she made things she was swept along upon the making. A harmony filled her being. She smoothed the satin against her strong young flank.
"I must say it hangs beautifully," her mother said and sighed.
"Tired?" Susan asked quickly, hearing the sigh.
"No," her mother said, and shut her lips. It was growing hot under the low eaves of the sewing room, and her mother pushed up her glasses and wiped her round wrinkled face with her white apron.
Then in the silence of the room, across the harmony within her, Susan became conscious of discord. It was there like the buzzing of a wasp against a windowpane. She lifted her head. Her sister Mary was playing Mendelssohn's Consolation slowly and carefully, flatting each time the essential sharp in the melody. She hesitated a moment, listened, and the flat struck her ear with true pain. She put down the satin and went quickly to the door.
"What—" her mother began, but Susan did not stop. She must, she must reach Mary before she came again to that sharp. She was full of a dread that was physical. She opened the parlor door quickly.
"Mary," she said gently. She was always gentle with Mary, five years younger than she. At the piano Mary turned her dark little face toward her sister, inquiring. Her thin small lean hands were still clawed above the keys.
"Darling, you—Shall I just show you?" Gently she pushed Mary along the piano bench and began to play, fully and softly, the melody. "There—and there—do you hear? It's saying, 'Don't be sad, not any more—remember, oh, remember, all the joy you've had!'—so it's major, not minor. There!" She played it with relief, glad to assuage the pain of the false note. She repeated it, to comfort herself, swelling the melody to its fullness, forgetting Mary, pressing relief into herself.
"I can't ever play it like that." Mary's voice sounded small and discouraged in her ear.
"Of course you can," she replied gaily. She got up from the piano bench. "Would you like to try it for me? I'll show you—"
But instantly she felt Mary's mood. After all, Mary's fifteen to her twenty—"No, of course you'd rather work it out yourself. You can, you know. You're doing beautifully with your music." She was eager to make Mary happy again. She wanted everybody about her happy.
"I don't think I'll practice any more now," Mary said. She closed the book. Her small red mouth was tight.
"All right, darling," Susan answered and smiled. "I'll fly back to my sewing. Would you like to come and see my dress?"
"After a while," said Mary. She did not look at Susan, nor smile. She pushed back her straight black hair with both hands and walked slowly away.
Susan picked up the satin pile.
"What was the matter?" her mother asked.
"Mary was striking a note flat," she said.
Her mother did not answer. Under the low roof the heat seemed suddenly to surge intensely upward.
"I know you don't mean it," her mother said, after a moment, "but Mary's very sensitive just now—it's her age. If I were you I believe I wouldn't correct her for anything."
"Oh no—I didn't correct her," Susan answered quickly. "I'd hate to do that. It's just that a note struck falsely is so hard to bear. It makes me shiver—it makes my mouth dry, and my palms wet. It's silly but I can't help it."
"It's better to go where you can't hear it," her mother said, and after a moment she added, "You're a little apt to be bossy, Susan. You want to take care."
She did not answer, feeling her mother's rebuke. She often felt this cloud rising between her and others, a small cloud, which she would not acknowledge. She had learned that if she did not answer, or try to explain herself at all, if she allowed the surface of events to move on again, the cloud would disappear. And she must have happiness. She could not breathe in cloud.
"Shall I go and make the gravy?" she said.
"Well, if you will," her mother replied, and added, "I don't know but what you make that stew gravy better than I do now, anyway."
She bent to kiss her mother. "What nonsense!" she said gaily. But her mother did not smile back. She wished often her mother could smile. Why not, when everything was good? But there was so easily that cloud between her mother and herself. When she and Mark were married, she thought in the kitchen, tying an apron about her waist, there would be no clouds. She loved this home, but the home she would make for Mark, that would be her own, a thing she had made.
"I want so to be married," she repeated to herself, passionately.
She lay in Mark's arms, in the moonlight, under the shadowy oak tree by the porch. They had spread down a rug and watched the moon come up at the end of the road. The house was full of light. Her mother was in the kitchen, her father in the living room correcting papers. They could hear him groaning over and over, "Oh, God—oh, good God!" She knew that he would lean back and close his eyes, motionless for a few seconds before he could go on, tortured by love of a perfection he never found. Now Mary was in the parlor practicing again. She sat up and listened for a quivering instant.
"Ah, thank God!" she cried and laughed.
"Amen, but why?" Mark asked.
"Mary played it right that time," she said. He wouldn't understand what she meant, but never mind. Mary was playing with stammering fingers, carefully right, and Susan lay back, full of a delicious ease which had nothing to do with Mark. Oh, rightness was so comforting and so comfortable! To see a thing in its proportion, whatever it was, to draw its outlines true and sure and simple—that was bottomless content, which lightened all the world. Mark did not answer. He was looking at her and now she could see he did not know what she meant. She could not tell him, because it had nothing to do with him, because it was an instinct she could not put into words at all, and so she was compelled to speak quickly of something else.
"I have my wedding gown half done!" she whispered.
"Sweetheart!" he whispered back. "There's nobody like you! I don't know another girl in this town who'd do it!"
"It's such fun to make things," she said.
"But you do everything so well," he said, half troubled. "You play and sing, you paint and cook and model." He waited, and then he said, humbly, "I'm not good enough for you."
She hated his humility. It made him faintly repulsive to her. She did not want to marry a man who felt himself small beside her. She must speak of something else again to drive it away from her. She said, "I want to do your head, Mark. You've a beautiful head. Let me see it!"
She sat up and turned his head against the moon. She passed her hands delicately, feelingly, over its outlines. She could see just how it must be begun, a firm strong pressure upon the clay to make this profound and plastic curve at the base of the brain, strong thumbs inward to make the wide hollows of the eye sockets. A familiar deep ache rose in her. Moonlight and oak tree slipped from her. Even he became dim. There was only this grave rugged head in her hands. She thought with longing of the mass of wet clay under a damp cloth in the little alcove off her room. She stirred, then quieted herself again. How ridiculous to want to leave her lover on a moonlight night to make his head in clay! She drew his head forward against her breast. This was better, infinitely better, this warm real head against her breast. She must be sure that she did not miss the warm reality of anything, letting that escape her while she made its image.
One by one the lights went out in the house. The piano stopped and the kitchen grew dark. For a moment her father and mother came out on the porch.
"Ha, you two dew-drenched mortals!" her father called into the darkness of the shadow where they sat. In the moonlight his silvery hair shone softly and his beautiful face was clear. The discontent of his mouth and eyes was lost for the moonlit moment.
"Good night, good night!" she called softly.
"Good night, sir!" Mark's voice echoed hers.
"I'm being put to bed," her father complained. "It's the way of the young generation!"
They laughed, and her father lingered a moment.
"At that, I guess there's nothing else to do," he murmured, and yawned.
"You could find yourself another oak tree," Susan called.
"Susan, it's not too damp, is it?" her mother cried. "You can sit in the living room!"
"Oh, pshaw, come to bed, Jenny!" her father said and pulled her away.
So the house grew still and dark. She lay with her head on Mark's shoulder, dreaming.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked at last.
"Everything," she said. "No, not thinking—feeling and seeing."
"What do you see?"
Excerpted from This Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck. Copyright © 1938 Pearl S. Buck. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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