Not Bread Alone
By Elsie Chamberlain Carroll
It was a morning in early June. Linda hummed softly as she dust5ed the shelves of her small store and put the books and chairs in order in the tiny reading alcove. The world seemed good today. She had noted when she was sprinkling her flowers how large the silver maple and the Russian olive trees she and Henry had planted that first year they came to live in Ike Lacy’s house had grown. The climbing roses at the south windows and over the trellises were masses of pink and red and white, and her other perennials seemed to be vying with each other in thrift and bloom. the robins had returned to the apple tree out by the well and the sun was gloriously warm and full of promise.
Strains from a violin came to her ears from the back bedroom. Linda’s lips parted as she listened and she beat time softly with her dustcloth as the strain was repeated over and over for greater perfection. Richard never gave up until he had mastered what he was working with, whether it was a little composition of his own or a selection from his practice book.
Linda wished that Mark had some of Richard’s persistence. Mark was slow and easy going like his Uncle Thad. She checked a sigh, and reprimanded her own thoughts. She mustn’t expect too much from the children. As Henry often reminded her, they couldn’t be perfect. Neither could they all be artists as she was now quite sure Richard would someday be. Oh, they would have to manage some way to give him his chance! That creative spark which enabled him, even as a child, to build beauty out of the unheard melodies in his soul was too precious to be left groping for fulfillment.
In her tenderness for Richard’s gift she reminded herself that Mark was just as dear in his own sweet way. Not another one of her five was so tender and thoughtful of her. He was always bringing her some little offering of love – a flower, a choice piece of fruit, or a quick, shy kiss on her cheek.
They were all wonderful, Linda thought as she went on humming, thrilled with the richness and satisfaction motherhood had brought her. She had ceased to worry about the limitations of Cedar Basin. No place in the world could be so dear to her now as this drab little town; for here she had experienced the joys of a bride, and here her babies had been born, and here she and Henry had made for themselves a good life.
Kathie came in the door and Linda put her dust cloth away.
“Good morning, Kathie. How are you all? I haven’t seen the children for days.”
“Oh, we’re all right, I guess, but I came to talk to you about something important, Linda.” She sat on a stool near the narrow counter. Linda got her darning basket from a shelf and sat opposite her.
“Has Mel been to see you and Henry about what he’s going to do?”
“No.” Linda couldn’t explain to her sister-in-law that she had asked Mel not to come to her home, nor that she never went to their mother-in-law’s unless she was accompanied by Henry or was quite sure Mel would not be home. She hated that secret of Mel’s passion lying between her and Henry, but she had decided after painful and long deliberation, that it would be better not to tell Henry unless she had to. Occasions had arisen when he had misunderstood and censured her. One had been last summer when Effie was ill. He had thought she should stay at nights to take care of Effie. But she had made excuses, and had nursed her sister-in-law during the days, but had hired Mary Foster to stay nights. She never saw Mel without remembering that dreadful experience three years ago. When she had heard Mark’s voice that night as she feared she was going to faint, she had suddenly become strong and unafraid. She had stood before Mel and looked him straight in the eyes and had said,
“How can you do this to me! I would rather die than to have Henry know what kind of brother you are, for he has always idolized you. Don’t ever come here again unless you know Henry is home. If I should have to tell him – I’m afraid he would kill you.” Mark had come into the room and Mel had hurried away. From that time he had never come near the place except on occasions when the family was all together, or unless he came with Henry.
“What is Mel going to do?” Linda asked.
“He’s going to sell his share of the farm and go away – to California or someplace. He’s going to leave his terrible old mother for the rest of us to take care of.”
Linda’s only sensation was one of relief – that he was going away.
“She’s Henry’s and Thad’s mother, too, Kathie.”
“But Mel is so selfish. He’s always taken the best of everything and can’t see it. He doesn’t expect to share at all what he’ll get for his land, and Thad says it will be thousands and thousands. Enough to put us all on easy street if he’s only be fair. He’ll leave the house for his mother and Effie, he says, but he thinks the rest of us should take care of them now. That means someone will have to go there and live – you know how frightened Effie is to be alone.”
“Don’t you think he’ll provide for them if he goes?”
“No. He says it was the rest of us who wanted to divide the property, and he thinks he has a perfect right to all that oil land, when it isn’t his by rights, any more than it is Thad’s and Henry’s.”
“I know, Kathie. But let’s not worry too much about it. I imagine the boys can make him see that such a thing wouldn’t be fair.”
“Thad tried to do that this morning, and they had an awful quarrel. That’s why I came to see you. When will Henry be back?”
“Not until Saturday – maybe not until Sunday. He’s going around to Mendon to bring the children home from school, you know.”
“Well, I guess you can hardly wait. Eddie’s about through college, isn’t he?”
“Just one more year. It doesn’t seem possible. and Jenny will be a freshman next year.”
“But about Mel. Thad thinks he’s planning to go right away. There’s a man coming today to buy his land. I wish you’d talk to him, Linda. You have a way of getting along with everybody, and Thad thinks you could do more with him even than Hen.”
“Oh, no, no,” Linda cried. “I couldn’t talk to him.”
“Why? It’s as much to your advantage as ours. He’ll probably be gone before Henry gets back.”
“I wish I could, Kathie, but I – I – don’t see – I don’t think it would do any good.”
Kathie was looking at her searchingly.
“Linda, is it true what Thad once said to me, that Mel is in love with you?”
“What nonsense!” Linda tried to laugh. “We just don’t get along – that’s all.” Then as Kathie continued to stare at her, she said,
“Of course I’d just as soon try, if you think it would do any good.”
At that moment Sam Potter, whose mother kept the one telephone in town, poked his head in at the door.
“You’re wanted on the phone, Mrs. Henry.”
“What can it be?” Linda was filled with a sudden premonition. Calls to the telephone usually meant sickness or death – or some other disaster.
“I wish I could stay and see what it is,” Kathie said, “but mother is over to Aunt Lucy’s and I left the children alone. You won’t forget to see Mel, will you?”
“No, Kathie. I’ll try to do it right away.” Linda called the children to watch the store, and hurried away.
As soon as she heard Jenny’s sobbing voice over the wire, she was sure something had happened to her son.
“What is it, Jenny? Tell me quick!”
“It’s Eddie, Mommy.”
“Is he hurt, or sick? Tell me, Jenny!”
“He’s – he’s in trouble, Mommy, and you must come. I can’t tell you over the telephone.”
“I’ll be there tonight,” Linda said, clinging to the instrument as she fought off the impulse to faint.
“Is anything the matter, Linda?” Nancy Potter asked curiously.
Linda brushed back her hair and leaned against the wall.
“Eddie – has had – an accident. Maybe it isn’t serious, but Jenny wants me to come. Has the mail gone?”
“Yes. Left about three quarters of an hour ago. If you could find someone to take you in a car, I think you could overtake it. I’m sorry, Linda. If there is anything I can do, let me know.”
“Thanks, Nancy.” Linda with fear clutching at her heart, hurried home. She felt almost certain it was – money – Eddie had taken money that didn’t belong to him. He still seemed to have that passion to feel money in his hands, to hear it jingling in his pockets. She recalled the experience of the pennies on his eighth birthday. She recalled, too, other crises – the letter that had come his first year away, asking about a note for his second semester’s tuition. They had sent the money to him weeks before. When Henry went to see about it, Eddie had the money – changed to small bills and silver, most of it in his pockets. He declared he was going to pay it before school was out, but that he hadn’t remembered just when the note was due. She hoped it was nothing more serious, although that, of course, had been serious enough, and they had thought he had learned a lasting lesson.
She wondered whom she could get to take her to catch the mail. Melville had a car and he was the logical one to ask. but she couldn’t bring herself to do it.
She explained briefly to the children that something had happened to Eddie; Jenny hadn’t made it clear just what – but she must go at once. She sent Mark to see if Lars Harrison would take her, and Richard to see if Lem Tucker would if Lars couldn’t.
Richard returned first with word that Lem had his car in the field. Mark came back a few moments later. Bonny was tending the store while Linda packed her bag.
“Lars say something’s wrong with his engine,” Mark said. “But I saw Uncle Mel standing up there by his car, so I went and asked him. He’ll be right down.”
For a moment Linda stopped in her packing. Then she realized there was no other way. Besides, she no longer felt afraid.
In a few moments Mel was at the gate, and Linda, giving final instructions to the children was getting into the car.
“It’s good of you, Mel. I believe if we drive fast we can catch the mail.”
“What’s happened? Mark didn’t seem to know.”
“I don’t know either, Mel. Jenny was crying and said she couldn’t tell me over the phone. I’m afraid though – that Eddie – has taken money.” She put her handkerchief to her eyes and wept. Then feeling that she owed Mel some explanation for such a statement, and feeling that she must unburden herself in some way, she poured out to him the story of her struggle all through Eddie’s life with his weakness.
Melville was silent when she finished. Finally he asked if Henry wasn’t in Mendon.
“Not yet,” she told him. “He went first to see about getting a new caretaker for the little country place where my uncle used to live. He won’t be in Mendon until Thursday or Friday.”
“I wish I could go on with you,” Mel said, and Linda was struck with the genuine concern in his voice. but she did not look at him. She kept her eyes straight ahead, hoping to catch sight of the mail truck.
“I can’t go, because a man is coming to see about buying my land,” he continued after a little pause.
“Kathie told me this morning you were going to sell.” Linda remembered her promise to Kathie, but she couldn’t bring herself to mention the unpleasant subject now, with this trouble on her mind and Mel being so kind.
“She says you’re going away.”
“Yes – I’m – thinking of it.” Then suddenly he turned from her and said,
“I guess you understand why, Linda.” She shrank back a little and he felt her movement.
“Oh, you don’t need to be afraid of me – now. I’m not quite the beast you think I am – or that I was once.”
She looked at him for the first time and all at once she felt sorry for him. He seemed so tragically alone in the world.
“Mel, I wish you could find a woman to love, and would get married and be happy like the rest of us.”
“But when I’ve found the woman – and she’s already married – what then?”
She didn’t dare to look into his face.
“Oh, no, Mel. You don’t love me. You mustn’t think such a thing.”
“Don’t I! God!” He turned his face away, and speeded up the car. Linda could see that his hands were gripping the steering wheel so hard his knuckles showed white under his brown skin. They were turning a bend in the road and to her relief she caught a glimpse of the mail truck. Mel slowed down. He drew the back of his hand quickly across his eyes and reached into his pocket.
“Linda, if what you think is true about Ed – you’ll need this.” He placed a roll of bills in her lap and again stepped on the gas.
“Mel – I couldn’t –”
He cut her short as he turned out of the road beside the mail truck.
“Isn’t Ed something to me, too?” he demanded gruffly.
It was almost dark when Linda reached Mendon. As long as she lived she was never to forget that next half hour. Years afterwards she used to wake suddenly in a cold sweat. In her sleep she had been entering again those heavy barred doors of a jail – of a jail – to see her son! She had been walking as in a hideous nightmare down dark, foul-smelling halls behind a man with a huge bunch of keys. She had been standing as in a trance while he fitted a key into a door which swung open revealing the white-faced figure slumped in the corner of a cell. Over and over, first in her waking hours, later in those horrible dreams she had lived that scene. Eddie’s stifled cry at sight of her; his cringing back from her first touch; his long, hard sobs as she had gathered him into her arms.
He had little to say. He couldn’t explain how he had come to do it. He had been going around with other boys who had money and there was a girl he was beginning to care for. They had planned a farewell party for the last night of school. He had seen the other boy take the wallet from his pocket just before they had gone into the gym, and he knew that he left it in an open locker. It was only a matter of running out a moment into the locker room for a drink and slipping the money from one pair of trousers to another.
There was no excuse, he knew. She shouldn’t have come. He wasn’t worth her tears. All he wanted was to die. He could never rise above the disgrace. She must try to forget he was ever born and let him die of his shame.
Linda never remembered what she said to him. But she knew that she sat holding his head in her lap, swaying back and forth as if he were a baby, pouring her love over him, when the key again sounded in the heavy door. She remembered clinging to him, afraid the jailer had come to take her away, and then she had looked up and seen a kindly faced man with a grey beard and understanding eyes.
“I just heard what had happened to our boy,” he said, “and came to help.”