The Lotus Eater
By Mabel S. Harmer
Before Helen had been at the ranch house a week she had put the new curtains up at all of the windows with a wonderfully cheering effect. She had polished furniture and scrubbed floors and woodwork until Dan had begged her to desist. Finally he had hired a woman from Medford to come in and scrub until Helen was entirely satisfied.
“Now I must have gallons of paint,” she announced. “The kitchen is to be a lovely shade of blue with coral trimmings. We will do our bedroom in orchid and –”
“Who is going to spread all these gallons of paint around?” interrupted Dan, amused.
“Why, I am, of course. I love to paint. And couldn’t you do the outside of the house or have someone else do it? It looks so terribly weatherbeaten.”
“Well – I guess I could,” answered Dan dubiously. “But it looks as good as the other houses in the valley, doesn’t it?”
“It does – but it doesn’t look good enough. Won’t you try, dear?” she asked, perching herself on an arm of his chair and rumpling his dark hair.
“I’ll do all I can,” Dan promised, “but paint is mighty expensive, you know, and I don’t have any spare time in the summer with all the stock to be looked after.”
Helen had to be satisfied with this much encouragement and as soon as she could get the paint she started vigorously to work upon the interior of the house.
She longed for a garden and gathered a few slips of flowers from friends in Medford, but she discovered that growing a garden in this climate where frost was likely to strike at any time during the summer was a very discouraging affair. She thought enviously of the garden in her home in California where roses bloomed all the year around with almost no effort on the part of the gardener.
In spite of all her efforts to make the kitchen attractive, it remained exactly the opposite of her dreams of what a bride’s kitchen should look like. The ugly black kitchen range and the washstand were her special antipathies. She polished the stove until it shone, but it was still a monstrosity in her eyes that blackened everything that came within reach.
She had painted the washstand a gay coral and hung her pretty embroidered towels above it, but it simply didn’t belong, and the tin wash basin and Dan’s inevitably half soiled towel hanging about were a constant eyesore.
Dan was highly amused when she insisted upon dragging the round washtub into the kitchen every day for a bath, but she had her own turn at inward amusement and gratification when she noticed him picking up many of her habits of personal cleanliness and daintiness.
In spite of the inconveniences of her home and the loneliness of ranch life Helen was very happy. There was a thrill in making her home as nice as she could. She had her music and would play on her violin, sometimes by the hour, and best of all she and Dan had their love for one another which was more tender and sweet even than Helen had dreamed. Dan was utterly devoted to her and when she sat out on their tiny porch of a summer evening with her head on Dan’s shoulder and gazed over the soft green meadows of the valley, she felt a contentment and happiness such as she had never before experienced.
It was Dan’s suggestion that they give a party in their “new” home. He was not particularly fond of parties, but he was dreadfully afraid that Helen would become lonesome. “We’ll invite the gang in and show them what a pretty wife and a nifty house looks like,” he said, beaming at Helen with pride.
“Oh, I’d love it, Dan,” cried Helen, her eyes shining. “It will give me a chance to use the best linen cloth I bought in Omaha, and the silver candlesticks that Aunt Margie sent, and Nina’s crystal goblets.”
“Gosh, honey!” protested Dan. “Do we have to put on a lot of swank? Can’t we just let the crowd come and have a gay time?”
“They can sit down to a decently set table and still have a good time, can’t they?” asked Helen a bit coolly. “I thought that you wanted my friends to see my nice things.”
“Well, I do, of course,” answered Dan rather dubiously, “only – well, go ahead, it’s your party and you have it the way you want it.”
Helen set to work with a vim preparing for her party. She sent away for rose-colored candlesticks to match the goblet sand managed to cut enough blossoms and leaves from her geraniums for a centerpiece. When the table was set with the gleaming new silver, the handsome linen cloth and the pretty glass and chinaware that had come as wedding presents, it was the loveliest that she had seen in years. She had made nut cups from rose crepe paper and painted dainty little place cards by hand.
Dan had stayed at home all day to help prepare the dinner and had worked valiantly at paring potatoes, beating egg whites and anything else that needed a strong right arm and a willing hand. He wished like everything that Helen had been content to have a “plain spread” but her joy in her pretty new things was so great that he didn’t have the heart to spoil her fun.
Helen wore her blue wedding dress and looked prettier than ever with her cheeks flushed rosy with pleasure and excitement. The guests were all friends of Dan’s, some of whom Helen knew only slightly, but she hoped that after tonight they would be her friends also and would be the means of opening up some kind of social life for them.
The ten guests they had invited arrived in their cars by twos or fours and Helen took them first to her bedroom to remove their wraps. They were gay enough when they first arrived, but the minute they entered the front room where the table had been set up, a damper seemed to fall upon their spirits and they sat around the room and gazed at the formally set table with distinctly antagonistic eyes.
One of Dan’s particular friends, Jim Lawson, had had trouble with his car on the way out and asked to be allowed to wash his hands. Dan had taken him to the kitchen and Helen stepped inside the door in time to hear him say as Dan handed him an embroidered guest towel, “Oh, my deah, how fawncy.” Both men flushed hotly when they turned and saw her there and the incident served to make all three of them still more uncomfortable for the evening.
Dan helped Helen serve the dinner, and between them they tried to keep the conversation going, but it lagged painfully in spite of their best efforts. The games that Helen had prepared for their enjoyment after the dinner were no more of a success and the last guest had departed at an hour that was still early. Helen flung herself down on the couch and burst into tears.
“I’m awfully sorry, honey,” said Dan, gathering her into his arms. “They didn’t mean to hurt you. It’s just that they didn’t understand.”
“Didn’t understand what?” sobbed Helen indignantly.
“They think that because you are from the city and are educated that you are trying to show off.”
“Show off!” repeated Helen scornfully. “Does that mean that we have to use a red checkered tablecloth and old dishes when we have company?”
“We might have a better time if we did,” said Dan with a half smile. “But never you mind, when they know you better they won’t be afraid of your fancy do-dads and in the meantime we’ll go sassiety and use them ourselves.”
It was a long time before Helen forgot the disappointment and chagrin caused by the failure of her dinner party, but gradually she came to be accepted among the “married crowd” and to join in with them at house parties or church socials.
For some queer reason there was a sharp dividing line in the community between the “young folks” and the “married folks” and the crowd that Helen and Dan had gone around with the year before had dropped them completely. They were definitely relegated to the older group.
The winter’s snow came to stay before Thanksgiving Day and shortly after that Helen knew that she was going to have a child. Her first feeling was one of fear at the unknown path that she was to tread, but it gradually gave way to joy as she became more reassured. There had been a good many other thousands of babies born, she decided, and her experience probably wouldn’t be greatly different from the others.
It would be glorious to have a pink, cuddly baby in the house to love and play with. She was sure that after the baby came she would never again be lonely.
In the meantime during the long winter months she became terribly lonely. There were days at a time when Dan had to be away from home taking supplies out to the men who were taking care of the sheep or taking a carload of cattle to Omaha.
Sometimes Dan’s younger sister stayed with her, but this necessitated such a long drive for the girl to and from school that more often Helen was forced to stay alone. During the day she did not mind so much, but at night when the howls of the wind were mingled with those of the coyotes she shivered close to the fire in near terror.
Dan’s attitude toward the coming of the baby had amazed her. He was not at all filled with the joy of parenthood as she supposed all prospective fathers should be, but was entirely concerned with her own safety and well-being. At times he even offered dire threats against “the judge” as he had already christened the baby, should the mother’s comfort be too greatly disturbed.
They had decided to go to Dan’s sister’s home in Riverton two weeks before the expected arrival so that they would be close to the only hospital in the valley, but before they had even reached the town, Helen found that her long period of waiting was over and they drove directly to the hospital.
“Well have a room ready for your wife in a few minutes,” said the nurse in a most matter of fact tone, “and Dr. Ward will be in this evening.”
“This evening!” gasped Dan. “But my wife is sick. We want him right now.”
The nurse smiled back agreeably as she said, “But he is out of town and won’t be back until evening. You needn’t worry anyway. There is always plenty of time with the first one.”
Some hours later the Doctor arrived at the hospital and called first upon Helen and then came down to where Dan was alternately pacing the floor and squirming about on a squeaky chair in the small waiting room. “Not a thing to worry about,” he announced in the same happy manner that the nurse had used. “Your wife is doing very nicely. Here is the Cheyenne Daily,” he continued, handing Dan a paper. “Did you see where the Braves won their third straight today?”
Dan glared first at the doctor and then at the paper as he thrust the latter out of sight.
The doctor looked at him and then chuckled. “Take it easy, young fellow,” he said as he left to go upstairs again. “I never lost a father yet.”
Towards morning Dan crept into Helen’s room where she lay white but serene on her pillow.
“Are you all right, honey?” he asked in shaken tones.
She reached out her hand toward him and managed a feeble smile. “I’m all right,” she said. “They’re dressing the baby. They’ll bring him here in a minute.”
Dan turned as the nurse entered with a small bundle wrapped in a fluffy blue blanket. “Here he is,” she said triumphantly. “Isn’t he a fine boy?”
Dan gazed awe-struck while the baby moved a tiny clenched fist. Then he visibly expanded and a broad grin covered his face. “I’ll tell the world he’s a fine boy,” he said in a voice which left no doubt of his conviction.