From the Relief Society Magazine, 1939-40 –
Cathedral of Peace
By Dorothy Clapp Robinson
As Carolyn entered the cottonwood grove, she flung her arms in surrender to black despair.
Dropping to a fallen log, she jerked her hat from her head and ran her fingers through her hot, clinging hair. The hair was prematurely white and might with care have been beautiful. About her damp brow, little faint-hearted curls emphasized the harshness of a cheap, nearly-grown-out permanent. her skin, though deeply tanned, was smooth and clear. She looked to the trees, the undergrowth, to the blue sky, seeking an answer for that throbbing insecurity within her; her glance came back barren.
“Why? Why?” she repeated over and over. The listening silence gave back no answer.
With a half-smothered cry of pain she stretched her length upon the log, and with hands under her head looked about. Here she was alone physically, just as everywhere she was alone mentally and spiritually.
A deep sky, patterned into blue lace by leaves and branches, canopied the grove. It reminded her of a cathedral window. This was her cathedral – her Moment of Peace – the spot to which she could flee when in need of communion with strength. Each segment of blue, or white, or gray, if there were clouds, was to her a prayer, an unfulfilled want. There were so many unfulfilled wants, and today there was no peace.
“Why, why did he do it?” she asked.
A slight breeze set the leaves quivering, and her lips quivered with remembrance. Long ago she had thought she had lost the faculty for being hurt. She wished she could weep and wash the hurt away.
The woody silence, the smell of rotting log, the earthy fragrance of damp ground gradually worked their miracle, and the spinning, confusing wheel of her emotions slowed to a dull rhythm. Thoughts, like spokes on a wheel, became separate and distinct.
“Why should I take you?” Turner had asked this morning. “There is no place there for you.”
Carolyn tried to remember just whenhe had drifted into saying such blunt, cruel things to her. It had been a long time ago, and they had not been so blunt in the beginning. it had been equally as long, until this morning, since she had asked to go with him, so he might have taken her this time. She had especially wanted to go – perhaps, because she was tired; perhaps a vague warning was sounding within her; perhaps, because yesterday Want had been brought to life within her.
“Why are men so selfish?” she cried in rebellion. “Turner is ashamed of me. I bore him. He doesn’t make a secret of it any more.”
Fifteen years ago Carolyn Evans and her husband, Turner Evans, had come to this remote valley, perched high among Idaho hills. Life had been stern at first, while Turner was building up his herd. Work, babies, and saving to get ahead had been her world. When a branch of the Church had been organized, she had, against his protests, insisted that he take the children to Sunday School without her; she hadn’t finished her work. Her work still wasn’t finished. It wasn’t necessary that she go to town; he could make her purchases. She was always too tired when he suggested some form of amusement; besides, dressing to go places was expensive for a woman. It had grown increasingly hard and less essential with the passing of years.
Now, suddenly, she realized Turner was no longer a husband, but a stranger – a stranger whose thoughts and feelings she knew not at all. He had not “settled” as she had. He had reached beyond the confines of this small valley. Men came to him for advice. They gave him responsibilities. But into his expanding life he went alone – his wife had no share in it.
“Why am I put aside?” she demanded. “I have worked hard. I have sacrificed personal desire to economy. I have helped pay for the place. Months on end I haven’t been to town. I have been a good wife – and now my husband is ashamed of me.”
A great bitterness welled up in her and dried her unshed tears. So many men as they rise to power discard the bride of their youth.
With a twinge she remembered what one of her neighbors had said years ago: “Who is it the men notice?” this worldly-wise old woman had said. “Did you ever hear a man say, ‘Look at dear Mrs. Brown. She works so hard, and scrimps and saves. She never spends money on herself.’ Did you ever hear one say that? No, indeed. They say, ‘Notice Mrs. Green. Isn’t she smart? Always ready to go places with her husband. Lucky man, Green.’”
At the time, Carolyn had turned up her nose, mentally, at such crude philosophy. Now, looking back over the passage of years, she wondered if Mrs. Bassatt had been trying to warn her. If so, she had not received the warning. She had been so secure then.
At the sound of approaching footsteps, she sat up quickly. She was thankful now that she had not cried. It was Kane Holland, the bachelor rancher from across the highway. He stopped short at sight of her.
“Hello, Carolyn,” he said, and even in her perturbed state she noticed his voice was harsh and strained. “Imagine you resting this time of day. Anything wrong?”
Startled at the question, Carolyn met his eyes then turned her own quickly away. His eyes had lost their familiar kindness and told something she had never heard before.
“No. Certainly not.” Her emphasis was unnecessary.
He sat down beside her. “We have been friends for many years, Carolyn, and acquaintances even longer. You need not pretend to me.” He took a short breath and then hurried on, “So you are not going to the Stock Growers’ Convention at Crystal Springs.”
“Who told you?”
“I didn’t need to be told. I can see it in your face, in your bearing – in the fact that you are here.”
“Well? is there anything so terrible about that? A great many wives will be staying home.”
“Not many. Yes, I think there is something quite terrible about you staying home while Turner goes abroad to cover himself with popularity and prestige. I wonder if you even know that he is to give the main address?”
Carolyn had risen quickly. “That,” she said sharply, “even if true, is not your affair.”
He, too, rose and faced her. He was a slight, fair man with mild gray eyes, through which he viewed the world with sympathy. His manner was usually one of detached concern. Now, his eyes were not sympathetic nor his manner detached. his voice took on unexpected depth.
“I think it is my affair. It is always the affair of a man who –”
She rose abruptly, and Kane, sensing her feeling, left quickly.
Left home! Again! And Kane knew – knew the reason as well as the fact. probably every one did – and she had been so careful even around her own children. That knowledge, with all its implications, killed her last subconscious hope. People knew and were talking. She would not have their sympathy! She would not be a discarded wife! But that left only one thing to do. She stood aghast at the sudden thought. But wasn’t it better to be alone than to lose the last shred of self-respect?
Then suddenly the dread of struggle took possession of her. No. She hadn’t courage to be a divorced woman. It would be too hard alone. there was no use in a woman – . Again she saw Kane’s eyes, heard the timbre of his voice. Could it be – ? Her heart gave an excited flutter, then raced. Yes. Yes, that was what he meant. That was what he had been trying to tell her for a long time. Her quickened pulse brought a flush to her cheeks, a sparkle to her eyes. Could it be possible that Kane Holland loved quiet, drab Carolyn Evans? How could it be possible; but it was, for now she remembered certain words and tones. He loved her, and he was kind. The boys liked him, perhaps better than any man they knew. This was her way out. She would do the discarding, quickly. It would not be right, but then nothing in this life of hers was right, any more.
She started guiltily. Through the trees came Robert, her first-born, with a shovel over one shoulder. At twenty-one he was a tall, powerfully built young man who measured six feet two without shoes. He moved deliberately and a little heavily, as if the weight of growth was still upon him. His words were few and quietly spoken.
“What are you doing here?’
“I came to think.”
He put his free arm over her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
She did not want to discuss it, even with him.
“Where have you been, Bob?”
“On the west eighty, irrigating.” He drew a deep breath. “I talked to Kane.”
“What about?” she asked in alarm.
“Money to finish school. He is going to loan it to me.”
“No,” she cried quickly, “you can’t do that.”
“Dad would not allow it.”
The boy stiffened. “He hasn’t offered it.”
“Did you ask him?”
“No. Don’t intend to.”
“You asked Kane.”
“That is different.”
“Oh, dear,” she sighed. She thought of something that had happened years ago. Her churn had gone to pieces with a big churning in the offing. They had gone to town for another. Once there, Turner had gone about his business without offering her any money. She had not asked. That evening, with the churning still undone, Turner had exploded.
“Couldn’t you have asked, or reminded me?” he had stormed. “I am not supposed to think of everything.”
Now Bob was making the same mistake. “Speak to him about it,” she said.
His lips tightened into stubborn lines. “He knows I want it. I shouldn’t have to ask.”
“But you do.”
“But I won’t. I am getting it from Kane. It will be purely a business arrangement. We went into that pretty thoroughly.”
“Not from Kane; he has been so – so neighborly.”
“Exactly.” He looked closely at her. “Listen, Mom, you needn’t be afraid of what Dad will say. I will see that you are not mixed up in the deal.”
She sighed with relief. He had not guessed. Reaching out she touched his arm.
“Come. Let’s walk on.”
The path led up away from the trees and over a high point that, disdaining the highway, extended like a finger into the bottom land. It was covered with dried grass and some straggly sagebrush. There they paused. Before them, and slightly lower, stretched a long narrow valley cut by a tree-fringed river. About three miles north, where the valley widened, suddenly the river split into three channels. Between the main and west streams lay many lush acres – goodly acres of grass and alfalfa. This was the Evans ranch. It included, also, an eighty west across the highway, and all the bottom land between where they stood and the river. It extended south past Carolyn’s cottonwood grove.
In the triangle where West Fork made a sharp turn to rejoin the parent stream was a higher spot of ground. There stood the Evans home, unadorned; peeling paint gave it a spotted effect. Flanking it were the outbuildings and the corrals.
Across the main channel to the east was another ranch with many and pretentious buildings. That was the Elkhorn ranch, bought early this spring by A.B. Straughn. Its twenty-four hundred acres embraced all the land between the middle and east channels, and crossing East Fork ran well into the hills beyond.
The coming of the Straughn family to this valley had abruptly changed the course of many lives. Due largely to their leadership, the Church branch had been, only last Sunday, changed into a fully manned ward, with Mr. Straughn as bishop. Mrs. Straughn, as Relief Society president, was in the process of officering the organization. Last evening she had called on Carolyn and asked her to be a counselor. Carolyn had immediately refused. She could not do such work. It had been years since she had even neighbored with the other ranch wives. She had never, since coming up here, belonged to a club or even the P.T.A.
“Please do not make that decision final,” Mrs. Straughn had begged, in parting. “Think it over for a few days and let me know.”
Now as Carolyn stood on the point overlooking the valley she wondered for the first time if she should reconsider. It would mean a great deal of work and necessitate being away from home a great deal.
At the sound of indrawn breath she turned quickly. Bob, too, was looking toward the Elkhorn, and in his eyes was a poignant fire that frightened her. Iut frightened her because it came to her for the first time that this one beside her was a man, with a man’s mind and emotions. Work and responsibility had aged him prematurely. Prematurely? Perhaps not. Turner had been just his age when they had been married. Time passed so quickly. Bob, so quiet and reticent with girls, had been touched at last. Carolyn’s eyes softened.
“She is such a lovely girl.”
“She is perfect,” he whispered. Then, startled at his own statement, he stiffened. “what do you mean?” he demanded.
She smiled and laid a hand on his hard-muscled arm. “The same thing you mean, Son, but –,” her voice faltered.
The reflection of the soft happy dream left his face. “But –” he cried fiercely. “I know what you were going to say – I’m not her kind. That’s – ”
“No, Bob, I –”
“Yes, you were. Well, if I am not, why not?” He was excited now and stuttered a little in his efforts to speak quickly. “Why aren’t we like them? Why aren’t we like a lot of people? Why isn’t our home what it should be?”
“What is wrong with your home?
“It is shabby and – confused and stagnant. We live to work and eat. Spending a dollar is a crime. Why can’t Dad be human?”
“Why act surprised? If our home is all right, why don’t we associate with other people? Why does Dad have absolute say-so about everything? Have you ever tried having your way? Why should he look like a million and you resemble a poor relation? How you have stood it all these years is more than I can figure out.” He stopped at sight of her white, stricken face. “I’m sorry, Mom, honest I am, but all this isn’t fair to us.”
He was a man now. Love was opening his eyes and heart, helping him to appraise, to search out values. Man’s desire to possess, to be independent, was shaking him with its intensity. If she left Turner, she would have Bob’s support. A warm glow softened her tenseness.
“Why,” the boy returned to his complaint, “don’t we live as the Straughns do, only on a smaller scale? Why isn’t our home kept up? why haven’t you kept up?”
“In the beginning,” she began gropingly, “we had a hard pull financially. We were – ”
“That isn’t it,” he interrupted hastily. “Look at Lathams. They are as poor as church mice, but they have something we haven’t. So money isn’t the answer – entirely. Look at Kane Holland. He hasn’t much of anything, yet he is at home any place. Everybody likes him. I wish Dad were more like him.”
A rush of hope flooded Carolyn’s face. “Do you?” she asked eagerly. “Do you like him that much?”
The timbre of her voice startled him. He scowled.
“Yes. Why? What does he have to do with this? Why, Mother. What – are you – do you mean – ”
“I mean nothing,” she said, keeping her voice level, “except what I asked.”
“Oh, yes, you do!” He grabbed her arm and whirled her about, abruptly. “Look here. So-o, that’s it. I’ve been wondering over something he said a while ago. Was I dumb! He is in love with you, isn’t he?”
There was no point in denial. Bob was a man and would see this with a man’s eyes. She nodded.
“Well! Of all the – the low down – who does he think he is?”
The harshness of his voice, his abrupt change in viewpoint, frightened her.
“Robert, is that a crime?”
“Yes, it is.” His voice was thick with resentment. “I suppose he thinks all he has to do is whistle, and you will answer. No wonder he was so eager to loan me money. I wouldn’t take it from him if I never got to school. I’m going up there and knock his ears back.”
“You just said you wished Dad were more like him.”
“I do, in some ways, but Dad is Dad and not to be compared in the same week with Kane Holland. Oh, good grief, Mother, be your age!”