Not Bread Alone
By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll
Linda snuggled closer against Henry’s side, careful not to interfere with his steering of the car. He looked down at her and asked:
“Are you really happy, sweetheart?”
“So happy I’m afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“That it can’t last. It seems too good to be true that anyone can be as happy as I am. Won’t we wake up and find it’s a dream?”
“You’re sweet, Linda. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
It was an afternoon in September. They had been married a week and were on their way to Henry’s home.
His father had died a few days after his stroke in the spring. Henry had not come back to school, but had been helping his brothers on the farm all summer. Linda had been with her uncle, busy with her sewing and making the most of their last weeks of happy companionship.
She and Henry had spent most of the days since their wedding in town, being entertained by their college friends. Then there had been that last day at the Hutch, spent in packing Linda’s things, visiting old haunts, and trying to cheer Uncle Peter.
And now in a few hours they would be in Cedar Basin. Linda would be meeting Henry’s mother and brothers and sister whom she had never seen. Little nervous chills kept running up and down her spine. She had a feeling of dread, too. She wished they could be going to a place of their own. But Henry had explained how impossible that would be at present. There were the funeral expenses of his father, and the mortgage, and the uncertainty of the crops. She tried to make him feel that she didn’t mind. She had even declared that it would be fun living with his folks for a while, getting acquainted, and finding out what kind of son he was. When he expressed a hope that she would like his people, she assured him that she couldn’t help loving anyone who belonged to him.
“But suppose your folks don’t like me?” she said with a little shiver.
“Suppose something possible,” he answered, pressing her hand which had stolen into the crook of his arm.
“But really, I am frightened,” she insisted. Everything will be so strange. I haven’t let myself think about it before. I’ve been too happy. But now we’re getting almost there, you say. Perhaps I won’t know how to do things the way they think I should. Honestly, darling, do you think they’ll like me?”
“They’ll be as crazy about you as I am – unless it’s Mel. You know he didn’t want me to get married. but you mustn’t mind anything he says or does. He’s taking the responsibility of things since Dad went awfully hard, and sometimes is cross and unreasonable. I’ve always worshiped Mel, until he made such a fuss when I wanted to go to school. We’ve never got back on our old grounds again. but he’s got to learn that I’m a man now as well as he is, and can do what I want to in some things even if we must work together for a while. Likely as not when he sees you, though, he’ll be jealous and wish he was married himself.”
“If only they’ll all like me, and if I won’t feel afraid of them.”
“They’ll feel afraid of you, if anything – a college girl and a great musician. They’ll be wondering if you’ll like them. And that’s what I keep wondering, too. I’ve tried to make you understand how different from other people we are away out here in the sticks. But I don’t know whether I’ve succeeded or not.”
“Tell me about them all again, so I’ll sort of feel acquainted.”
“Well, there’s mother. You’ll feel sorry for her. She’s never got over Dad’s death. That and her other troubles, too – I told you about Effie running away when she was a kid with that traveling salesman and coming back a little before Dicky was born. The rest of us were too young to feel the disgrace of it at the time as mother did, and since we’re older we can see how it might have happened to any girl. But mother has never got over it.”
“Poor Effie! How she must have suffered,” said Linda. “I’ll love her, I know, and her poor little crippled boy.”
“I’m sure you will. And as soon as Effie finds out how big and tolerant you are, she’ll adore you. She’s always afraid that everyone is going to feel like mother does about her mistake. As for Dicky, no one could help loving that poor little shaver.”
“Then there’s your younger brother, Thad, is it? Tell me something about him.”
“He’s just a gawky kid now, too bashful to speak to a stranger and too lazy to keep his neck and ears clean. You probably won’t see him for a week.”
“I’ll be glad when the first meetings are over. And I hope they won’t mind our staying there – while we have to.”
“Of course they won’t. They all know how it is. If only the price of wheat would go up, and if we could have a good potato crop we might begin planning soon to go by ourselves.”
“Won’t it be glorious when we do start making a home of our own?”
It was almost evening when the road led them to the top of a ridge overlooking a broad lowland. Henry stopped the car and pointed to the east side of the depression where a few hundred acres of land had been cleared and cultivated and where, at the nearer border of the fields, Linda could see a small cluster of houses.
“Well, there it is – Cedar Basin, home of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bowers.” He put his arms about her and looked anxiously down into her face.
Linda was filled with dismay. Surely, she thought, he must be trying to tease her. That squalid, ugly little town could not be Henry’s home. But soon she realized it was no joke. He was expecting her to say something.
“Well, sweetheart, how do you like it?”
“Why – I – I can’t tell from here,” she stammered. “I – didn’t realize it would be so – so – small.”
“I told you the total population is only four hundred thirty-five. There are only sixty-seven families. Are you disappointed?”
“No, no. Of course not. Let’s hurry. I want to see everything.”
She didn’t want him to discover her feelings. He lifted her face and kissed her before throwing in the clutch.
“Remember, darling, that we are not planning to stay here always.”
Those words gave her something to cling to. Of course she could stand it a few years. She could stand any kind of place that long – with Henry.
They wound through scrub cedars and sage brush down into the basin. The ground was dry and dusty. There was no grass under the trees; only clumps of low-growing brush here and there and a few stunted sun-flowers.
As they neared the town, Linda’s eyes took in more of the details. But these did little to hearten her. The houses were all frame structures, a few of them two stories, but most of them only one. Here and there was evidence that in times past one of the buildings had been painted. Around the houses were nondescript fences enclosing gardens, in the main overgrown with weeds. Barns and sheds and corrals were part of each home unit, as were also old-fashioned wells and privies.
“That building with the bell-tower is the school house,” Henry explained. “The church is next to it and the post office and store are across the street. There’s a garage and a blacksmith shop around the next corner and Jim Bancroft, who lives in that two-story house on the next street, keeps the travel.”
Linda followed his pointing hand with her eyes, hoping he couldn’t guess how she was feeling inside.
“And right over there,” he indicated a house at the farther edge of the town, “is home.”
The house was one of the larger ones which had once been painted. But as they drew nearer, she noted that it revealed the same lack of care and pride as the other homes. The gate sagged; pickets were missing from the fence; the garden was choked with weeds; and the two poplar trees growing in the dooryard were beginning to die at the top.
Henry began to whistle a bit nervously as he steered in toward the gate.
Linda’s hand were clutching his arm. She was trembling with excitement and dread.
“Do you think – ”
“Hello, Dicky,” Henry called to a child playing at the side of the house, and a little white-faced boy of about ten years came limping toward them. Linda smiled into his big brown eyes, and felt suddenly reassured. No matter what the others were like, she and Dicky would be friends.
Henry’s voice brought a rush to the door, and in a moment the car was surrounded.
“We’ve been looking for you for two days,” said the big dark young man, taller and darker even than Henry, who came first, and who Linda knew was Melville. He began looking at her appraisingly, as he would look, Linda thought, at a piece of machinery Henry might have brought home. She supposed things Henry had said had prejudiced her against Melville. But as he opened the car door and held his hand out to her, his look changed, and she suddenly felt her cheeks burning.
“So you are the new Mrs. Bowers. Well, well. I wish Hen would show as good judgment in other things as he has in picking a wife.”
Linda could see that Henry was not only relieved, but immensely pleased at Melville’s reception of her. They got out of the car and Henry proceeded with the introductions.
“Mother, this is Linda,” he said as he kissed the faded woman in a faded, ill-fitting gingham dress who had been the last to come from the house. Linda stretched out both her hands and leaned forward to kiss this strange woman who was her husband’s mother and whom she had hoped might seem like a mother to her.
“I can’t get used to thinking that Henry is married,” Mrs. Bowers said in a high, plaintive drawl. Her hands were limp and felt clammy. Linda felt sorry for her. She had no doubt that she herself might feel as tragic as this woman looked if Henry should have a stroke and die. And Mrs. Bowers, she remembered, had had other troubles. She looked for Effie and saw her standing back from the others by the gate, waiting to see the verdict of this new sister-in-law against her past. She was a slender, dark woman of twenty-eight, who Linda was sure had once been very pretty. Now she was sallow and slightly stooped and there was a baffled, shamed expression in her dark eyes.
Linda rushed to her and put her arms about her.
“You’re Effie, aren’t you? I’m so glad Henry has a sister,” and she kissed the startled woman on both cheeks. Then she turned to Dicky who stood shyly beside his mother.
“And I know who you are, too. You’re Dicky, and you’re the first one I saw, and I knew right away that we were going to be friends. What were you making there at the side of the house when we came up?”
“An airplane.” Dicky was looking curiously at her from the corner of his eyes.
“I thought so. May I see it after a while?” He nodded and fumbled at his mother’s apron.
“Come on over, Thad,” Henry called to a lanky boy standing by the well. “Linda won’t bite you, and we need you to help unload this stuff.”
Blushing and moving awkwardly, Thad came to the group. Linda held out her hand.
“Of course I won’t bite you. I won’t even kiss you, for I know you’d think that a lot worse. But I’m awfully glad to know you, Thad. Don’t let your big brothers make you do all the work.” Thad grinned and looked down at the toe of his shoe.
“No danger of that,” laughed Mel. “It’s a bigger job to get him to do anything than it is to do it yourself.”
The women went into the house, while the boys took the bags and boxes and Linda’s cedar chest from the back of the car.
“I expect you’re pretty tired,” Mrs. Bowers said. “Effie has supper nearly ready.”
The living room floor was covered with a rag carpet. Cheesecloth curtains hung at the windows. There were a table, several chairs, and an old plush sofa. Over the fireplace was an enlarged picture of a man with eyes like Henry’s, a chin like Thad’s and a long straight nose like Mel’s and Effie’s.
“That’s Pa,” Mrs. Bowers said as she saw Linda looking at the picture. She took her handkerchief from her apron pocket and wiped her eyes. “I guess Henry’s told you about the stroke that took him off last May. I just can’t get used to him bein’ gone. He seen about everything. The boys can’t manage like he could. Death’s a awful thing. I used to say they was things worse than death – but I didn’t know how it would seem with Pa gone.”
Linda put her arm across the woman’s shoulders and tried to comfort her.
“I know it’s terrible. My mother died when I was twelve. But you have lots to live for yet – Mrs. Bowers.” Linda hesitated before the name, but she suddenly realized she could never call this woman mother. “You have a fine family that must be a comfort to you.”
“Yes, if they’ll all just do right,” the mother sighed. “But I’ve had my troubles besides Pa’s death.”
Linda heard a pan drop in the kitchen.
“I wonder if I couldn’t help Effie,” she said and left her mother-in-law looking mournfully at the picture over the mantle.
Two weeks later Linda wrote to her uncle.
“Uncle Peter, darling,
“In my letter last week I told you about Henry’s home and folks and how strange things seemed. But I didn’t tell you how desperately homesick I was to see you. I was afraid if I wrote one word about how much I miss our beautiful life together, I would weep all over my letter and you would come and take me away from Henry.
“Now I am beginning to emerge as an individual out of this new environment which I thought at first was going to drown everything that was really me, and I’ve met my first crisis, and feel head and shoulders taller as a woman than I did when I told you good-bye.
“You remember what you said under the pear tree that night last spring when I told you how much I loved Henry – about bread alone not being enough for life. Every day I’m finding out more and more what you meant. The people here, as you had guessed, don’t know there is anything but bread to work for.
“But now for what happened.
“Your precious letter and check for eight hundred dollars to buy my piano (you know, darling, that if I lived to be a thousand and kept on saying ‘thank you! thank you! thank you!’ I couldn’t tell you how thankful I am for that and everything else you have done for me) – well, it came the same day as a notice about the interest on the farm mortgage. Don’t blame them too much, darling. They’ve had it dreadfully hard and they don’t know how indispensable the ‘un-bread’ things are in life; but they thought – even Henry – that I should let them borrow five hundred dollars of that money. You can see what it would have meant, giving up my piano.
“You’ve no idea how hard it was to stand out against them when they needed it so. Melville has a dreadfully dominating personality – I feel a little bit afraid of him all the time, and in her weak, pathetic way Henry’s mother is strong, too. Henry wouldn’t take a very definite stand either way, but I knew he hoped I would see it as the others did. He insisted that I must have the piano, but suggested that I pay the three hundred dollars that would be left down, and pay the rest as they could raise it on the farm. That would have meant that I’d have had my piano for a few months, then would have had to give it up.
“One whole night I didn’t sleep. I didn’t know what to do. I knew it would be hard staying here if Mel and his mother were against me – and with even Henry thinking I had been selfish. But I couldn’t bear to give up what meant so much sacrifice on your part and so much to my whole future. Besides, wise darling that you are, you had specified so definitely that the money was for a piano, that I was afraid of what you might do, if I spent it for something else.
“Just at dawn, I dozed off, and I dreamed of Grandmother Marks and the organ she brought across the plains. That gave me courage. I woke Henry up and made him see it as I did, how much it would mean all through our lives. Then I got up and sent the order for the piano.
“Melville and his mother are still mourning because they’ll have to sell part of the land to pay the interest, but I am at peace within myself, and I can’t wait until the piano gets here.
“I adore you – Saint Peter.
“Your own Linnie.”