GRAY steel that seems unmoving because it spins so fast in the balanced fly-wheel, gray snow in an avenue of elms, gray dawn with the sun behind it — this was the gray of Vida Sherwin's life at thirty-six.
She was small and active and sallow; her yellow hair was faded, and looked dry; her blue silk blouses and modest lace collars and high black shoes and sailor hats were as literal and uncharming as a schoolroom desk; but her eyes determined her appearance, revealed her as a personage and a force, indicated her faith in the goodness and purpose of everything. They were blue, and they were never still; they expressed amusement, pity, enthusiasm. If she had been seen in sleep, with the wrinkles beside her eyes stilled and the creased lids hiding the radiant irises, she would have lost her potency.
She was born in a hill-smothered Wisconsin village where her father was a prosy minister; she labored through a sanctimonious college; she taught for two years in an iron-range town of blurry-faced Tatars and Montenegrins, and wastes of ore, and when she came to Gopher Prairie, its trees and the shining spaciousness of the wheat prairie made her certain that she was in paradise.
She admitted to her fellow-teachers that the schoolbuilding was slightly damp, but she insisted that the rooms were "arranged so conveniently — and then that bust of President McKinley at the head of the stairs, it's a lovely art-work, and isn't it an inspiration to have the brave, honest, martyr president to think about!" She taught French, English, and history, and the Sophomore Latin class, which dealt in matters of a metaphysical nature called Indirect Discourse and the Ablative Absolute. Each year she was reconvinced that the pupils were beginning to learn more quickly. She spent four winters in building up the Debating Society, and when the debate really was lively one Friday afternoon, and the speakers of pieces did not forget their lines, she felt rewarded.
She lived an engrossed useful life, and seemed as cool and simple as an apple. But secretly she was creeping among fears, longing, and guilt. She knew what it was, but she dared not name it. She hated even the sound of the word "sex." When she dreamed of being a woman of the harem, with great white warm limbs, she awoke to shudder, defenseless in the dusk of her room. She prayed to Jesus, always to the Son of God, offering him the terrible power of her adoration, addressing him as the eternal lover, growing passionate, exalted, large, as she contemplated his splendor. Thus she mounted to endurance and surcease.
By day, rattling about in many activities, she was able to ridicule her blazing nights of darkness. With spurious cheerfulness she announced everywhere, "I guess I'm a born spinster," and "No one will ever marry a plain schoolma'am like me," and "You men, great big noisy bothersome creatures, we women wouldn't have you round the place, dirtying up nice clean rooms, if it wasn't that you have to be petted and guided. We just ought to say 'Scat!' to all of you!"
But when a man held her close at a dance, even when "Professor" George Edwin Mott patted her hand paternally as they considered the naughtinesses of Cy Bogart, she quivered, and reflected how superior she was to have kept her virginity.
In the autumn of 1911, a year before Dr. Will Kennicott was married, Vida was his partner at a five-hundred tournament. She was thirty-four then; Kennicott about thirty-six. To her he was a superb, boyish, diverting creature; all the heroic qualities in a manly magnificent body. They had been helping the hostess to serve the Waldorf salad and coffee and gingerbread. They were in the kitchen, side by side on a bench, while the others ponderously supped in the room beyond.
Kennicott was masculine and experimental. He stroked Vida's hand, he put his arm carelessly about her shoulder.
"Don't!" she said sharply.
"You're a cunning thing," he offered, patting the back of her shoulder in an exploratory manner.
While she strained away, she longed to move nearer to him. He bent over, looked at her knowingly. She glanced down at his left hand as it touched her knee. She sprang up, started noisily and needlessly to wash the dishes. He helped her. He was too lazy to adventure further — and too used to women in his profession. She was grateful for the impersonality of his talk. It enabled her to gain control. She knew that she had skirted wild thoughts.
A month after, on a sleighing-party, under the buffalo robes in the bob-sled, he whispered, "You pretend to be a grown-up schoolteacher, but you're nothing but a kiddie." His arm was about her. She resisted.
"Don't you like the poor lonely bachelor?" he yammered in a fatuous way.
"No, I don't! You don't care for me in the least. You're just practising on me."
"You're so mean! I'm terribly fond of you."
"I'm not of you. And I'm not going to let myself be fond of you, either."
He persistently drew her toward him. She clutched his arm. Then she threw off the robe, climbed out of the sled, raced after it with Harry Haydock. At the dance which followed the sleigh-ride Kennicott was devoted to the watery prettiness of Maud Dyer, and Vida was noisily interested in getting up a Virginia Reel. Without seeming to watch Kennicott, she knew that he did not once look at her.
That was all of her first love-affair.
He gave no sign of remembering that he was "terribly fond." She waited for him; she reveled in longing, and in a sense of guilt because she longed. She told herself that she did not want part of him; unless he gave her all his devotion she would never let him touch her; and when she found that she was probably lying, she burned with scorn. She fought it out in prayer. She knelt in a pink flannel nightgown, her thin hair down her back, her forehead as full of horror as a mask of tragedy, while she identified her love for the Son of God with her love for a mortal, and wondered if any other woman had ever been so sacrilegious. She wanted to be a nun and observe perpetual adoration. She bought a rosary, but she had been so bitterly reared as a Protestant that she could not bring herself to use it.
Yet none of her intimates in the school and in the boarding-house knew of her abyss of passion. They said she was "so optimistic."
When she heard that Kennicott was to marry a girl, pretty, young, and imposingly from the Cities, Vida despaired. She congratulated Kennicott; carelessly ascertained from him the hour of marriage. At that hour, sitting in her room, Vida pictured the wedding in St. Paul. Full of an ecstasy which horrified her, she followed Kennicott and the girl who had stolen her place, followed them to the train, through the evening, the night.
She was relieved when she had worked out a belief that she wasn't really shameful, that there was a mystical relation between herself and Carol, so that she was vicariously yet veritably with Kennicott, and had the right to be.
She saw Carol during the first five minutes in Gopher Prairie. She stared at the passing motor, at Kennicott and the girl beside him. In that fog world of transference of emotion Vida had no normal jealousy but a conviction that, since through Carol she had received Kennicott's love, then Carol was a part of her, an astral self, a heightened and more beloved self. She was glad of the girl's charm, of the smooth black hair, the airy head and young shoulders. But she was suddenly angry. Carol glanced at her for a quarter-second, but looked past her, at an old roadside barn. If she had made the great sacrifice, at least she expected gratitude and recognition, Vida raged, while her conscious schoolroom mind fussily begged her to control this insanity.