The afternoon grew old and dark. Aunt Bessie went home. Carol took the baby into her own room. The maid came in complaining, "I can't get no extra milk to make chipped beef for supper." Hugh was sleepy, and he had been spoiled by Aunt Bessie. Even to a returned mother, his whining and his trick of seven times snatching her silver brush were fatiguing. As a background, behind the noises of Hugh and the kitchen, the house reeked with a colorless stillness.
From the window she heard Kennicott greeting the Widow Bogart as he had always done, always, every snowy evening: "Guess this 'll keep up all night." She waited. There they were, the furnace sounds, unalterable, eternal: removing ashes, shoveling coal.
Yes. She was back home! Nothing had changed. She had never been away. California? Had she seen it? Had she for one minute left this scraping sound of the small shovel in the ash-pit of the furnace? But Kennicott preposterously supposed that she had. Never had she been quite so far from going away as now when he believed she had just come back. She felt oozing through the walls the spirit of small houses and righteous people. At that instant she knew that in running away she had merely hidden her doubts behind the officious stir of travel.
"Dear God, don't let me begin agonizing again!" she sobbed. Hugh wept with her.
"Wait for mummy a second!" She hastened down to the cellar, to Kennicott.
He was standing before the furnace. However inadequate the rest of the house, he had seen to it that the fundamental cellar should be large and clean, the square pillars whitewashed, and the bins for coal and potatoes and trunks convenient. A glow from the drafts fell on the smooth gray cement floor at his feet. He was whistling tenderly, staring at the furnace with eyes which saw the black-domed monster as a symbol of home and of the beloved routine to which he had returned — his gipsying decently accomplished, his duty of viewing "sights" and "curios" performed with thoroughness. Unconscious of her, he stooped and peered in at the blue flames among the coals. He closed the door briskly, and made a whirling gesture with his right hand, out of pure bliss.
He saw her. "Why, hello, old lady! Pretty darn good to be back, eh?"
"Yes," she lied, while she quaked, "Not now. I can't face the job of explaining now. He's been so good. He trusts me. And I'm going to break his heart!"
She smiled at him. She tidied his sacred cellar by throwing an empty bluing bottle into the trash bin. She mourned, "It's only the baby that holds me. If Hugh died — — " She fled upstairs in panic and made sure that nothing had happened to Hugh in these four minutes.
She saw a pencil-mark on a window-sill. She had made it on a September day when she had been planning a picnic for Fern Mullins and Erik. Fern and she had been hysterical with nonsense, had invented mad parties for all the coming winter. She glanced across the alley at the room which Fern had occupied. A rag of a gray curtain masked the still window.
She tried to think of some one to whom she wanted to telephone. There was no one.
The Sam Clarks called that evening and encouraged her to describe the missions. A dozen times they told her how glad they were to have her back.
"It is good to be wanted," she thought. "It will drug me. But — — Oh, is all life, always, an unresolved But?"