MARY SCOWLED AT THE CLOUD boiling ominously in the already gray sky of February. Her hands gripped the edge of the steps on which she sat.
"Why can't they just go on to Oregon without trying to take the whole country with them?" The cloud, looming there in her sky, was just like the Reverend Delazon Smith. Its shadowy rolling edges even looked to her the way his brown hair brushed loosely back from his imperious face. She had once thought that face handsome!
Back in July he had been appointed to their little church in southern Iowa. What a stir he had made! A former ambassador to some country in South America, a newspaper editor, now converted to Methodism. Those deep-set, fierce eyes, under striking brows, the luxuriant roll of dark hair, the big words, the impassioned gestures -- all made Delazon Smith a commanding figure among them.
Even before Thanksgiving, he had started calling Oregon Emigration meetings as if they were part of his Conference assignment. Duty, Opportunity -- he used both words as slogans to stir the men. And now they were drawing up wagon train rules and electing company officers.
Mary braced herself against the step. As if she didn't know already how little her resistance would accomplish!
Charles had said, "I am the one who must decide. Reverend Smith has laid it all out clear. It's the Promised Land. We must go and save Oregon for our country. I know it won't be easy for you -- or any of us, for that matter -- but God is on our side.
"You just do your part as helpmate and I'll get us through."
But Charles couldn't go unless he sold the farm. It would take all he could hope to get for it to stock a wagon for their family of seven, and the baby to be born somewhere along the trail.
"O God," she whispered, "please let me stay."
Over yonder lay the fields which Charles had cleared of hazelbrush. The oxen had earned their keep on that job. The fencerails, all of them, Charles had split from trees felled in the clearing, and the house, too, was off the place, with enough hickory and ash left standing for all the yokes and wagons they would ever need here.
Past the road where sumac had flamed last fall, springtime would bring Dutchman's Breeches and Bluebells and the Dogtoothed Violets that Mary had loved to gather -- yes, and Jack-in-the-Pulpits, and Buttercups to hold under the children's chins. "Let's see whether you like butter," she would ask, and then point to the yellow reflection on the kissable throat.
It would be fun to picnic along the Skunk River, where Indian arrowheads were so thick they might have been seeded. The big ones, large enough to lie across the palm of your hand, had a lovely feel along the broad, smooth side.
If only at dusk this summer she could sit on this step and watch the children catch fireflies. "God, please ... please."
Mary looked up, almost hoping to see a sign or hear a voice. But there was only the billowing black cloud, chilling the air and reminding her to get back to the bedroom and finish sorting out the baby things.
"All right for you, God." The hand in her apron pocket clenched, touching the note that she had found in the little sweater this afternoon.
At first it had looked strange to her and then she had stood there turning it over in her hand as she tried to place it in her mind. Remembering, she had found herself blushing.
There they were, the words that had made her tuck the note away in the wrappings of that little gift Nancy had made for her before John Henry was born. "So Charles did tame you," the note taunted.
The remembered sound of Nancy's chuckle had echoed through the silent room as Mary visioned those black-fringed hazel eyes, measuring her with infuriating candor. And the hair, a mass of sunny ringlets that always made Mary more than ever aware of the thin, drab wispiness of her own.
Mary had tried not to be jealous -- had tried not to care.
"I guess twelve years of marriage and child-bearing would just about take the spirit out of anybody!" she found herself talking back at Nancy, with a toss of her head.
Heavens, how long had it been? "I guess they wouldn't call me 'Spunky' any more."
She backed away from the bureau and scanned herself from across the room.
She was still fairly small and neat -- considering. She never had had any color. The faded brown hair, parted in the middle, was drawn up in braids around the crown of her head. The added height helped balance the squaring effect of her deep-set eyes under the wide brow, and the firm, short little jaw. Mary pulled herself up a bit, realizing as she did so that anyone who looked twice would know that she was pregnant.
Nancy hadn't been the only one who had taunted her with Charles's boast that he would tame her. Just about everyone had plagued her with it all that summer, mostly for the fun of seeing her flare up.
By August baiting her had lost out to love and romance. Charles's high-handed way that had at first invoked resistance also attracted. They married September 13, 1838, in Greencastle, Indiana -- Charles Adams of Kentucky and Mary Vowell of Tennessee.
Mary came back to the mirror to study herself at close range. A serious, intent face looked back attentively.
"Charles is a good husband and a good father. Lots of men are about as paternal as tomcats. Why can't you accept what you must?"
"I'd like to settle down long enough for the vines to come up over the porch. I'd like to fix what we have and be able to enjoy it for a while. I want to have this baby in a civilized place. I want Millie and Margaret and Mamie and Pauline to have music lessons. I don't want to emigrate to Oregon."
"Are you sure that is all?"
"That will do. I don't want to cast reflections on ...."
Was Nancy still in Greencastle? Would she be there when just about everyone was moving West?
Mary shivered, remembering the nightmares she had been having.
Once she had been captured and bound with leather thongs that cut her wrists. Indian braves danced about her making horrible cries and menacing gestures. The biggest and fiercest danced closer and closer, brandishing a huge arrowhead as if to spear her with it. He came so close she could see the streaks of brown in the chert, flintrock. Finally, with a loud cry, he held it over her head. She writhed in agony of fear as she watched his hand descending ....
Once they were fording a river and she suddenly realized that they were caught in quicksand. With evil, sucking noises the water came up, up ....
Another night she found herself alone in the midst of a vast plain. Coming toward her was an onrushing herd of buffalo whose hoofbeats shook the earth. With their great heads lowered, they came straight toward her, their malevolent eyes fixed, their nostrils dilated ....
Once the wagon started to tip. As she reached out to hold back the children she found herself pitched over a high, rocky cliff, falling ....
After these dreams she could open her eyes or put out her hand to feel Charles beside her and so push away the nightmare.
But one dream was different. There was nothing really horrible about it, and yet nothing would dispel the sense of [un]reality.
There stood Charles, halfway up the aisle after class meeting, shaking hands with a precision that suggested he might be counting the number of shakes he gave each one.
Mary was standing back where she could keep an eye on Mamie, playing in the sandtable by the wall, and on Margaret, silently "playing" the organ, her feet dangling high above the pedals.
With Charles were the Carters and others. Little Father Light, at the end of the near row, stood with his thin gray face lifted toward Charles so that when he could get a word in edge-wise his little gray goatee jiggled as it jutted over his Adam's apple. The goatee must have been intended to give it decent cover. Embarrassed by the exposure, Mary started to look away.
Then she heard Mrs. Carter say it, not loudly, but distinctly, "Dear Charles."
Surely the whole group heard, yet they gave no sign -- no pause in the conversation, no change of expression.
She just had to head Mrs. Carter off before she said something that the otters could not miss hearing or understanding. Father Light was standing directly in her way, with his hand on the back of the seat in front of him, yet somehow she did not disturb him as she quickly slipped herself between Charles and Mrs. Carter.
Taking a firm stance she turned to Mrs. Carter and in a tone that was as light but firm as she could manage, she said, "Sister Carter, don't forget that Charles is my husband."
Mrs. Carter couldn't -- or wouldn't hear her. She kept right on talking to the others. Charles had not noticed her either.
She plucked his sleeve.
He ignored her.
She spoke again.
They all ignored her. In fact, they acted as if she were not there at all.
But of course it was just s dream. Illogical. But unshakable, too.
Could it be some kind of mystical revelation. like Joseph's dream? Or was it petty jealousy, surfacing in sleep?
She shivered again. The cloud no longer looked like anything but a big rain cloud. Its shadow lay over her whole garden plot.
The teakettle was spluttering in the kitchen. She must hurry and scald out the chamber pots if they were to dry before she had to take them in.
She headed for the warm kitchen, letting the screen door come against her heel as she went in.
"Yes," she told herself, picking up the hot pad and moving the dancing kettle off the heat, "the dream is a sign, all right -- of my own pettiness. I'm ashamed of myself, begrudging Charles a little appreciation from Sister Carter. She hasn't heard his class meeting stories as many times as I have."
She took a firm grip on the kettle handle and returned to the yard with the swaying, steaming load. There she braced herself beside the four white porcelain chamber pots, gingerly tipped the kettle, circled a thin stream of hot water around the inside of each, and finally emptied the last drops upon the upturned lids. She had laid them on the planks that led to the outhouse. Then she emptied each steaming chamber to let dry.
With all the fuss over Charles as class leader, with all his duties of visiting the membership, with all that importance, she had not once been consciously jealous, she consoled herself.
Tears were running down her cheeks now. What a state she had worked herself into, and there was a wagon stopping out front. It was idiotic, crying over a silly dream. She touched her eyes with the edge of her apron and rubbed her cheeks to make them pink while she hurried through the house to the front door.
"Think about the devil ..." It was the Carters' wagon out there, and "Doc" Carter was at the door. "Thank goodness he isn't a mind reader."
"Doc" Carter, always neat, was in clean workclothes. The boyish high color on his cheeks and the glint on his light brown hair enhanced the fresh look of him, especially now as he smiled. A dimple played at odds against the austerity that his aquiline nose would otherwise suggest.
"Sister Adams," he drew a letter from the inside pocket of his jacket, "I know Brother Adams isn't home. I'll just leave this for you to give to him."
He handed her the letter. As she looked up she saw a kindness in his eyes that made her wonder whether he had noticed the redness of her own.
When he had gone, she put the letter on the clock shelf against the pendulum door and darted into the downstairs bedroom to look into the bureau mirror. No sign of redness around her eyes, but her cheeks were pink and her hair not too disheveled, glory be! As she smoothed here and tucked in there, she realized that she did not look into the mirror often enough these days. Really, it isn't vanity to keep one's appearance presentable.
Strange -- she'd never thought of it before, but perhaps Sister Carter just looked more impressed by Charles than she really was because she wasn't used to looking up at a man. It could be that Charles's edge in height gave him more of an appearance of authority. Yes. Sister Carter might very well be impressed with Charles, or she might just look impressed.
Brother Carter was a kind and gentle man. Certainly not much of a talker, but a nice man. He hadn't looked especially sympathetic or curious -- just pleasant.
Reassured by the mirror, Mary felt suddenly almost gay -- more energetic than she had for days -- as she began the ritual of returning the chamber-pots to their respective commodes.
As if following the lilt of some inaudible music, she went back through the house and out into the back yard, with light, quick steps. Carefully lifting the crocheted lid-silencers off the clothesline in a practiced gesture which let them hang loosely over the extended fingers of her right hand, she dipped in a slow, swooping motion, like a bird in lazy flight, as with her left hand she flipped the porcelain tops over and dropped the covers off her fingers, one on each, so that now with freed hands, she could fit the crocheted covers over the righted lids and settle the lids, now muted with the lace, onto the pots, without that familiar, embarrassing sound.
Then, standing between two and carefully straightening her spine, she squared her shoulders manfully, let her knees buckle until her fingers found the bail on each, centered on the wooden handles, and, with a firm grasp on each of the fresh and shining white porcelain majesties, she straightened. Like Hebe, or maybe Justice, she moved with stately precision up the steps and onto the porch. There, standing before the screen door, she set the right one down at the left side; then opening the screen door with her nearer right hand, and, using her shoulder, elbow, and rear (in that order) to hold the door open, she retrieved the pot in one continuous motion which ended with the door coming to a close against her retarded heel. Then she sailed through the kitchen, up the stairs, and into each bedroom, straight to the commodes with their doors still slightly ajar to air them while their appointments were elsewhere.
As she came back by her bed, with her foot she pushed the trundle clear under, then, going to the window, she pulled out the peg and carefully let the window down. On the way back by the bed she straightened the rag rug again. It was getting too thin to lie smoothly any more, she noted.
A breeze, gusting now, promised snow or rain before long. Maybe she shouldn't wait for Millie to fill the big kettle from the well. She would do that and let Millie finish the lamps. Meanwhile, the fire would just barely hold until John Henry could fill the wood box.
The house had been quiet all afternoon. She would enjoy the bustle of the children coming in from school and all the preparation for supper. They were good children, almost too good. John Henry seemed more like a man than a boy already. And Millie, she half-guiltily congratulated herself, was her mother all over again. If Millie married well, that primness of hers could be quite regal. At any rate, she could be a humble, good wife and enjoy matching wits with fortune to make ends meet, too proud to pretend, and glad for what she had.
Mary had a lot to be thankful for -- a good husband, healthy children, and a place with the righteous in the community. Yes, a lot to be thankful for, she repeated firmly, proud of herself that she had the good sense to be grateful. Not many men would take three little girls for a trip to town, even if they were "corralled" in the wagon, and Margaret was almost as good as MiIlie in caring for Pauline and Mamie.
She stopped down-stairs. "Humble-proud, that's what I am, and it's likely that Millie will be, too," she thought. She was in such a study that her lips tightened in a straight line, but the corners twitched up when she heard the familiar sound of the children coming home from school, like little hoof-beats pounding around the house and up the back steps as they raced each other into the house.
John Henry and Millie scrambled onto the porch. Now they were inside, shoving their lunchpails up onto the shelf over the dry sink. Then they tumbled into the sitting room before she had [not] moved more than a step or two.
"Mama," chattered Millie, breathlessly, "are we going to Oregon, too?"
For Mary, it seemed as if the floor shook and the walls echoed. She caught hold of the back of the rocking chair and felt it give with her grip. For a minute she could hardly breathe. She hung on for dear life, and that was what it was, for the child within her jumped.
Surely the children must have noticed, but if they did they gave no sign. She formed the word with her lips, but there was no sound. If only she could say "No," but she didn't.
"As far as I know," she said carefully, "nothing has been decided."
Millie turned upon John Henry triumphantly, pivoting and stamping her foot, assuming a ludicrously defiant stance for her size. "You see? I told you so." Her grey-blue eyes were flashing.
Millie slipped into the mannerisms of others as easily as most folks put on coats. "I wonder who she's mimicking now? Someone John Henry likes?" Mary looked at John Henry for a clue.
He was not impressed. He loftily ignored Millie and looked almost, but not quite, vindictively at his mother. "You mean you don't want to go and are holding us back."
Around the edges of her dismay at his steely-eyed assessment, she wondered whether he guessed how much she was holding back. And how could a boy of twelve be so much like his father!
He wheeled back to the kitchen to hang up his cap and jacket. There was no way of knowing from the flat tone of his statement whether it was recrimination or what. Of course he wanted to go. It was all anybody ever talked about, it seemed; especially the men and boys, with bravado and eagerness.
Mary opened her mouth but no sound came out. Her face must have looked stricken, for Millie flew to her, arms wide. "Oh, Mamma, I don't want to go if you don't want to," she assured.
Millie must have heard her and Charles talking last night after they had gone to bed. Millie slept in the trundle and must have been awake later than they had supposed. Her tone certainly suggested that she had heard them. Too bad Millie didn't go to sleep as soon as her head hit the pillow as John Henry did!
Mary wondered how much more Millie had heard and whether the child had understood what Charles would not when she had tried to tell him without actually putting it in words. Millie sensed things. No need to let the child worry any more than Mary could help.
Mary gave her a quick hug, which she tried to make gay and reassuring, then gently smoothed the soft brown hair away from the center part and over the squared lines of the brow, under which the deep-set blue eyes looked up at her with a maturity that awed her.
It seemed like a long time since early December when Charles had gone to the Oregon Emigrant meeting in Birmingham, "just to find out about things," and she had watched the Oregon fever mount, knowing that he would want to strike out again westward and that all she could hope for was postponement. Just one more year and then she wouldn't mind so much -- if another baby wasn't on the way again.
Last night she had tried to tell him in such a way that he would feel what she felt. Pure foolishness on her part! She had found herself saying over and over, "But I can't see any end to it." And he kept reminding her about all the other people who could, people who had courage and faith enough to go and possess the land."
Old Father Light and his wife were going. Then he'd name the others, one by one, as if the names were irrefutable arguments. He called the roll, an emphatic silence after each name.
"But, Charles, I just can't see the end of it," she found herself repeating lamely, as to herself she counted desperately, February, March, April, May -- four months. Four back would be January, December, November, October. Would the baby be born in early or late June?
When she realized that she had been counting to herself with the slow measured tones of Charles's words, he was saying something, but she wasn't sure what. All she got was the last about "living by faith."
"But having a baby on the way . . ."
"Birth is a perfectly natural process."
"So is death."
"You are afraid, aren't you." He became possessive and almost tender and strong. "Have faith, Mary."
She didn't know how far into the night they had talked, supposing Millicent, in the trundle bed, was fast asleep.
He was so sure that he could realize enough from "The place" to cover provisions for the wagon, supplies at the forts along the way, with enough left over to carry them well into their first winter, which, "in Oregon, would be mild," he reminded her.
Slowly, methodically, he built his argument for pulling up stakes and getting in on the great Oregon Opportunity. Inexorably he dislodged her grip on everything she laid a hand to that might hold them to "The place." He pointed to the unknown Oregon country -- so frightening to her -- as the land of promise and fulfillment of every good thing. A Methodist community already planted by the waters of the Willamette, rich land needing only the clearing to yield more lumber than they would need for buildings and fences galore, leaving soil deep and rich for planting, a wholesome climate so mild a man could work outdoors practically the whole year around, with early planting and long harvest seasons. What more could hardworking, God-fearing folk want?
Embarrassed as she was to mention it another time, she tried, without much hope, another tack. "It doesn't seem right for folks like us to have a baby along the way - like gypsies."
"We'll just let nature take its course, as God wills, and don't forget, there'll be just as good doctoring in the wagon train as there is at home. Doc Carter is thinking more about going all the time."
"Charles," she pleaded desperately, "you don't understand. Having a baby in a wagon, and keeping going day after day with the cooking and all ...."
"Oh," he said loftily, "when you see how many good people are going, you won't want to hold your family back from this God-given opportunity."
She couldn't ignore the implied reprimand for the folly of her fears, and she knew she was pounding on a door that was already locked and barred. All she could do was to repeat inanely, "If I could only see the end of it . . ."
"Everything in God's good time; there will be a time for seeing. The time for talking is past. You'll have to trust your husband, woman," he said.
Millie is too young to be burdened with worrying, Mary thought, though worry well she might. The next three years would make all the difference in her young life. Three years after this and she'd be going into her fifteenth year. She didn't want Millicent growing up like poor white trash in that distant Oregon country where Mary and Charles would be just another immigrant family to most people, even though their position would probably be fairly well established among the Methodists there. Charles's long service as class leader in the church ought to be worth something to folks out there.
"Well, Millicent," she shrugged, and even forced a laugh,"I guess we won't be going before supper. Please change your dress and fill the big kettle for me. If you can get the carrots and potatoes ready, we will have an early meal. Then we will be through early enough for you to do some sums before classmeeting."
By the time they were ready for work in the kitchen, John Henry had changed his clothes and was out chopping the stove wood.
Automatically, Mary picked up a hot pad, opened the firebox door, and put in enough quick wood on the coals to have a good, hot fire going and the teakettle purring hot again in a hurry. Well, anyway, the children knew, and that was some sort of relief. Whatever hung in the air these days was understood, at least. Mary wasn't much for subterfuges, except those necessary and proper.
John Henry chopped steadily. Soon he brought in his first load and carefully lowered it in the woodbox behind the stove. He lowered it quietly, almost gently. It was an unmistakable statement of feeling so clear that she said, for the wood as well as the gentleness of manner, "Thank you, John Henry!"
Always glad to do what I can for you, Mrs. Adams," he said,this time speaking so flatly that she could make as much or as little of it as she wanted. Was the "Mrs. Adams" his reminder of her duty, or was it another of his almost-not-at-all funny jokes! It seemed as if she were always trying to interpret what John Henry said. If she only knew how much of him was her and how much of him was Charles, she might be able to tell what he meant at least part of the time.
Classmeeting night was always rushed because Charles liked to be there early. In the hustle and bustle of getting the meal, she didn't see him take down the letter from the clockshelf. In fact, she had forgotten all about it. The lamp was pulled down over the table and the clock was out of the circle of its light.
She was flushed but ready when Charles and John Henry brought the buggy around. Her coat already wouldn't button easily, not even with the buttons set back, but the long fichu obscured the fact, and her hat was rather pert when she got it at the right angle. Her appearance was quite tolerable, she told herself, as she drew on her gloves. But getting into the buggy, she was awkward enough to destroy any pride she might have taken in her appearance. She was always afraid of pulling the cord around the baby's neck as she had been warned jerking stomach muscles might do. By the time she was settled in the back seat with Millie, she was acutely uncomfortable, her heart pounding ridiculously, her cheeks hot enough to fry a hoecake.
A ghastly thought curdled. If getting into the buggy was difficult now, how in the world would she ever get in and out of a Conestoga three or four times a day in another three months! In her thoughts she posed this awkward question to Charles, but his back showed no evidence of hearing anyone's thoughts but his own as he drove along, going over "the lesson" on the way.
The children, understanding this preparatory contemplation, offered no disturbing chatter. Mary joggled along with her own noisy silence, an uncomfortable turmoil, physical and spiritual, playing a kind of tag for her conscious consideration. Before she was married, riding horseback had been a delight, but now, even riding in a buggy upset her. "Always is when I am pregnant," she thought. She tried to remember when she had not been pregnant, but she could not evoke the feeling of being just herself. It seemed so long ago it must have been someone else. She had been Polly Vowell who was someone else. Charles had insisted on calling her Mary because his sister was Polly. Mary Adams was a wife and mother of five. She wondered whether Charles was someone different -- not just older and more encumbered by having become a husband and father. Rebelliously, she doubted it. Yes, riding certainly didn't put her into a very receptive mood for classmeeting.
Father Light's buggy was the only one hitched there ahead of them at the meeting house. He had lit some lamps and had a fire going in the great stove.
Charles never failed to comment appreciatively on these preparations, and Father Light always responded that it was the least he could do. It was a ritual as good as any other for maintaining the amenities.
"I always say (sniff, sniff) that if Brother Adams can lead the meeting (sniff, sniff) for our spiritual nurture and comfort, I can get the lamps lit and the fire started to warm the cockles of our hearts," he would say. The parallelism sounded Biblical to him and he glowed with the pleasure of pronouncing it once more before each class meeting.
Mary always wondered what she would say if the children asked what cockles were. "With cockle shells and silver bells and pretty maidens all in a row," her only other experience with the word, was not very helpful.
Father Light went back to his self-appointed task of setting out the songbooks. When he had finished that, he offered to shake hands with each as he greeted them, sniffing with a kind of nervous cheer. Mary invariably thought of dogs sniffing, but she could not think of a single way in which his sniffing could be likened to a dog's. She had scolded herself more than once for having made such a demeaning comparison for such a nice old man -- forty years old if he was a day -- but the dog comparison always popped into her mind when she heard him sniff.
The sniffing was so much a part of his personality she would have missed it if it had been suddenly and miraculously cured. The sniffing and the over-all grey cast to his skin and hair were the sign of his long servitude at the flouring mill. All the millers sniffed and looked flour-y. His neat, clean, blue worsted suit, the hard, white collar, and the little jutting goatee -- all seemed to be overcast with the same dusty look that the mill wore.
If he went to Oregon and worked out in that healthful air instead of in a flouring mill, would he, she wondered, get over that sniffing? And if he quit sniffing, would she feel differently toward him?
The first time she had ever noticed him was when he arose to lead in prayer. His appearance so amused her when she covertly glanced up that she had feared some other "peeker" might catch the irrepressible expression of amusement on her face.
He was such an inconsequential-looking little man as he arose to lead in prayer, he reminded her of a little rooster in the wind. He stretched his neck and shut his eyes, the flour-colored goatee jutted forward, leaving the adam's apple exposed in profile to deepen the impression of a little roaster getting ready to crow.
Since that first amused glimpse, her impression of the little man had not really changed -- had only grown more definite. Her amused compassion combined with condescending appreciation: amusement at his almost childlike animation and excitability; compassion for his diminutiveness which obviously frustrated him constantly; appreciation for his keen mind and bubbling good spirit; and respect for his indomitable drive over-rode any noticeable concern for the ludicrousness of his appearance. Even now there was a knowing twinkle in his eye, reflecting the anticipated amusement in the eyes of his beholders.
Suddenly she realized something she must have known all along. He actually capitalized on his lack of physical presence. He disarmed them all. By their generous act of condescension, he was in reality, a central figure and exerted from that vantage some power. He was amusing, he was good, and he was nobody's fool.
As he looked up at Charles while they were shaking hands, Charles laid his hand on Mr. Light's shoulder, very much as he might have done with one of the boys. Mr. Light twinkled up at him from under his bushy grey eyebrows. At that moment Mary would have given a great deal to know what Mr. Light was thinking of her husband.
At the same moment the question formed in her mind, Mary knew she wanted him to think well of Charles, not for Father Light's sake, but for Charles's. She could not explain why. She had steadfastly held that Charles was superior because he was too serious and good to be playful. She certainly wasn't going to start questioning it now.
Mrs. Light buzzed up with her usual fussing, scolding manner, not because she was scolding or even felt like scolding, really; it was just her way of gaining a conversational foothold by getting attention without having anything to say and without any particular physical presence. Mary marveled at the effect that habitually pursing her lips had created around her little dismayed "O" of a mouth. Little lines, darkened by down, radiated in ridges from the thin, almost colorless circle of her lips. Under raised eyebrows, dark eyes stared out from amazing circles of heavy brown lashes. Hers was an exclamatory kind of face.
Just as her husband accepted the role of excitable naiveté, Mrs. Light adopted that of the excitable, ineffective scold. She accentuated the roundness of her little button nose by the curve of hair on either side of the center part as it arched around her ears into a little, light round bun in the middle of the back of her head, which Mary found herself noticing as Mrs. Light buzzed off to fuss over some of the others as they came in.
For the life of her, Mary couldn't remember what Mrs. Light had been talking about. Vaguely she hoped her response had been adequate. Not that Mrs. Light would have noticed!
When Father Light started ringing the last bell, by pulling the long rope that dangled in the little vestibule, the folks quickly settled into their accustomed places. Altogether, they made up a better than average meeting crowd. Almost twenty tonight.
Most families brought lamps in with them, so that as the assemblage grew, the number of lamps in the holders around the walls increased. By meeting time one could read in almost any part of the room.
Mary had not realized how tired she was until she sat down. Even the cold hard seat felt comfortable to her back. In the reality that seemed so different from the mood of the dream that had haunted her all day, she found relief.
Oddly, the Carters had not arrived. Each time the stir of latecomers attracted her attention, she was sure it would be they. "Well," she thought to herself, finally, "if they aren't even going to be here tonight, as a dreamer I am not much of a prophet."
Charles had been greeting folks as they came in at the door, swapping talk. Now he was coming up front. He was stopping by her row.
What in the world could he want? The children were behaving well enough, playing their favorite waiting-for-meeting-to-begin game of trying to get as many hymn titles as possible into one sentence. They weren't hurting the books at all, even though they were rustling the pages. Charles surely wasn't going to tell them to stop now. He knew that they would stop just as soon as he started the meeting.
No, it wasn't the children. He was looking at her intently and he bent over so far the watch fob his father had given him swung out abruptly. Whatever was the matter? He looked somewhat embarrassed. She distinctly remembered putting out a nice, clean, white handkerchief for him. Could he have forgotten it himself? He was reaching into his coat pocket.
"Mary," he whispered, "I haven't any hymns picked out. Find two to start us off with and then look up the number for "Shall We Gather At The River" to close. Put them down on the back of this."
He handed her an envelope. It looked like the same one Doc Carter had left that afternoon. It seemed odd that Charles had found it and made no comment. Seeing it made her start guiltily for having forgotten to see to it that he got it.
When she had confirmed the page numbers for "Sweet Hour of Prayer," "Just As I Am," and then, dutifully, "Shall We Gather At The River," she raised the envelope as the signal which Charles, now up front, had been looking for.
The Kanes were just coming in. They came past and on up the aisle to the place that was always saved for them on account of Mrs. Kane's being deaf.
Charles moved to greet them and picked up the envelope quite unobtrusively.
As the Kanes passed by, John Henry hissed, "They're going to Oregon if they can sell their farm, Ma."
How well she knew! Charles had made quite a to-do of comparing their two farms and how much Brother Kane expected to get for his -- "three times what he paid for it. That is the regular asking for improvements like ours. As long as a man can realize that kind of profit on his improvements, it seems plain ridiculous not to make it while he can."
Was he right? Was she, then, wrong to want to cling to what was theirs now, what was a part of them?
A baby born on the way would have very little chance, and if the baby died, couldn't they really be nearly murderers? Why hadn't she thought of bringing that up to Charles?
A surge of triumph flushed her at the thought, as if she had already presented this dissuader and it had carried weight with him. Her fancied triumph was cut short almost immediately by Charles's announcing the first hymn and with much ado, Mrs. Light's flurrying to the organ. Once settled just right on the stool, she pushed up the lid, pulled out the stops, and sat there, alternately rubbing her hands and rearranging the hymnals on the rack.
Afterwards, Mary never was able to recall more than a kaleidoscope of impressions of the meeting from that point. The waves of heat from the stove, the shifting light from the lamps, the prayers, the scripture, the lesson discussion -- nothing that of itself might not have been spoken and considered by a classmeeting anywhere in the country, and yet everything that was spoken glistened with a special meaning, filling her with panic.
How could the old familiar story of the Israelites push her to the very precipice of fear, she tried to ask herself, but while she sat there with her gloved hands folded in her lap, she fought an inner battle against hysteria. Mrs. Kane's elongated jet-laden earlobes hung, as usual, directly in her line of vision. Mr. Light's goatee jutted nervously, as usual, across the aisle to her left. Mrs. Light's head bobbed in self-conscious agreement. It was a nightmare of reality.
"By faith ... in the desert ... cloud by day and fire by night ... Promised Land ..." the words ricocheted through the plain little meeting house. The double intent of his words was committing them all to the Westward migration.
Suddenly there was a flutter within her so intense that she raised her hymnal on edge in her lap and laid her arm along the top edge so that she could keep her coat from revealing the stir. Poor baby, upset by her emotional tempest. She vowed henceforth to be calm. She must not mark the baby if she could possibly help it. She had seen a badly marked baby.
Her little figure stiffened as she resolved to accept the coming difficulties with whatever Christian fortitude she could muster. She had a life to protect, and it was not her own. Immediately she realized that she had crossed a kind of spiritual threshold for, suddenly, as if a physical presence, a benediction of peace, released the tension of anxiety. "I can and I will," she promised the presence with new-found grace.
Charles was pulling out Brother Carter's envelope, but instead of referring to the page number on the back, he opened it. "I want to read you a message from Brother and Sister Carter," he said. Then he read, "Dear Friends, perhaps you have not missed us." Here everyone smiled. Of course they had all noted the Carters' absence. "We have had a death in the family. When we can, we will join the earliest train of good people emigrating to Oregon in the spring."
Old Father Jacobs spoke up. " 'Pears like there won't hardly be nobody left here. Everbody's a-gittin' the fever. If the plague don't git us, Oregon will!"