By Beatrice R. Parsons
Synopsis: Lorna Ashton, an orphan, who has no home of her own and has lived with a cousin, marries Dr. Matthew Wire and goes to live in Westfield, Nevada. She is afraid that Matthew’s relatives and friends, and even his patients, will continue to mean so much to him that he will never be wholly hers. However, she gradually finds a place for herself in the community and in the affections of Uncle John, Nurse Hallie, and Carole, a little neighbor girl. She meets Jeanne Beatty and Anne Clayton, friends of Matthew’s, and becomes acquainted with Jim Nason, an eccentric man, who has been asked to help financially in building a much-needed hospital in Sky Valley. Two small china kittens, which Lorna has treasured since childhood, have become to her a symbol of possession, and yet she gradually learns to share herself and her husband with others. One day, while Matthew and Nurse Hallie have gone out on an emergency call, Carole cuts her hand and Lorna attends the wound and gives the little china kittens to Carole.
Lorna was fast coming to know her husband. The almost fierce independence in him, the almost terrifying impatience to learn all there was to learn about the mysterious working of human chemistry. He studied eagerly while Lorna sat quietly sewing, glad to be alone with him, even though he was deep in his book.
His mind was always busy, learning the names of the drugs that would subdue or conquer a certain disease, probing, solving complex problems that Lorna could scarcely comprehend. When he was worried, he sought Uncle John, or Hallie, and Lorna had that old, frightening feeling of being shut out.
She was trying to conquer her fears and jealousies, and yet she still feared Matt’s friends. Anne, Jeanne, and Margaret had shared his boyhood, his gay, happy youth.
One morning just after breakfast – and for a wonder – before a patient arrived, Matt and Lorna sat on their own little patio, under everlasting, lavender sweet-pea vines that shed their fragrance over them. Lorna always enjoyed these little stolen moments alone with Matt, and she was almost impatient to see Carole running across the street. she had a lovely, framed portrait in her hands.
“It’s a picture of Margaret! She gave it to Mama.” She sighed, deeply, happily, looking at it. “Isn’t she beautiful, Dr. Matt?”
Matt took the picture in his hands and studied it. Lorna looked over his shoulder at a quiet, lovely face, with soft, lustrous dark hair molding the thin cheeks. the eyes seemed to be quietly waiting.
“Is she really like that, Matt?” asked Lorna, catching her breath. “Is she really so lovely, almost fragile looking?” she had meant to call on Margaret, had promised Matt she would do so, but she hadn’t gone. She was ashamed, and said, “Matt, I’ve meant to go and see her. Hallie told me she hadn’t been so well since she visited Patty Hamilton. I’ve been so busy …” Her voice dwindled, as Matt looked at her. She had no real excuse.
Matt spoke tensely, holding the frame much too tight. Go to see her, soon, Lorna. I want you to be good friends.”
Lorna glanced at her husband in quick alarm. “Is she very …” She had been going to say, “ill,” but Matt’s eyes, darting from Carole’s small face to her own, had warned her. She tried to be cheerful for Carole’s sake. “Surely anyone so lovely, so … well … alive can’t be …” She nodded triumphantly. “Margaret must be all right, Matt. Remember how wrong you were about Jeanne. She had those X-rays, and she wrote that they showed nothing!”
Matt handed the picture back to Carole, but he said nothing. The worry that deepened his eyes didn’t go as he went to the office. Lorna read Jeanne’s letter again, and felt that Matt was worrying too much about Margaret. She said as much to Hallie one afternoon when they had a moment or two alone.
Hallie’s starched uniform rustled crisply, and she gave Lorna a strange look. When she spoke her voice was a little gruff.
“One of the first things a nurse has to learn is not to speak lightly of anyone’s illness …”
Lorna flushed angrily. “I wasn’t trying to be callous.”
Hallie shook her head. “You weren’t being callous, Mrs. Wire. You were being casual.”
Lorna’s eyes flicked to Hallie’s stern face. “You think I’m jealous because I know how much Margaret means to Matt!”
“Margaret means a lot to everyone in Westfield,” corrected Hallie very quietly. She worked carefully with the tubes and bottles in her refrigerator, and said, surprisingly enough, “How would you like to go driving this afternoon, Mrs. Wire? I have to go out to John Barker’s place and look after his dressing.” As she saw Lorna about to refuse, she added coaxingly, “Helen Barker gets lonely out there on the farm. She’d like to have a visitor. She’s been complaining of her back, lately. But Dr. John and I doubt if there’s really anything wrong.”
She motioned to Lorna, who followed her reluctantly, and said as they got into the car, “I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with Helen Barker that can’t be cured by a good hard talking to from John. But she’s got him under her thumb so that he doesn’t dare say his name is his own.”
She guided the car carefully along the cottonwood-shaded street, and didn’t look at Lorna, as she added, “Helen’s mother was one of those people who always have to rule. Helen grew up to think she must rule John. He was all right until she made him dance to her tune. Now he’s just a lazy, shiftless man who deserves most of Helen’s nagging.”
Lorna listened to Hallie’s words with one ear. She wasn’t really interested in Helen and John Barker. She didn’t know why Hallie wanted her to see them. There must be a reason, for Hallie wasn’t the sort of person who did things hit or miss. But what it was, Lorna couldn’t guess. besides, she was thinking of Margaret, and of the way Matt had looked when he spoke about her. She broke into the middle of Hallie’s dissertation about foolish wives.
“Tell me about Margaret,” she said a little crisply, demandingly.
Hallie turned her head and gave her a sharp glance. “I’ve known Margaret since she was a child. She was very like the sister Matt never had. They grew up on the same block, though her family moved away after she had rheumatic fever. It left her with a bad heart.”
Lorna was ashamed, but she had to know the answer to the question that was troubling her heart. Her voice was low, tense, and Hallie had to bend to hear it.
“Was Matt …? Were they … in love?”
For a moment Hallie didn’t answer. Then she said a little flatly, “They might have married if Margaret hadn’t become ill. She put all thoughts of love aside when she learned of her condition.”
Hallie seemed to be considering further. At last she said firmly, “No, Matt never loved her. Not the way he loves … you. But he promised her something. He promised that when he grew up and got to be a doctor, he’d cure her weak heart.”
Hallie’s hands were suddenly taut on the wheel as she turned into the Barkers’ farmyard. “There’s nothing Matt can do, only stand helplessly aside and wait.”
The words fell like cold rain on Lorna’s shoulders as she got out of the car and crossed the yard at Hallie’s side. She wondered if the world had changed, darkened. Yet the sun shone with its accustomed brilliance on the littered yard, the rundown farm. She heard Helen’s sharp voice calling from the broken screen door.
“Nurse Hallie, see if there isn’t anything you can do for my sore back. John just sits there and sits there, his foot up. I have to do all the chores.” On and on went the stinging, lashing voice as Hallie asked about the back, promised to have Dr. Matt drop in when he was out that way, then looked at the foot that John had crushed with the plow. It looked awful to Lorna’s sick eyes, but Hallie assured her that it was coming nicely.
Watching John’s lined, patient face, hearing his wife’s scolding voice, a thought came unbidden into Lorna’s mind. A thought about a wild hawk circling a gray mountain peak. her lips trembled suddenly, recalling what Hallie had said about John having been a jolly young man.
So that’s why Hallie had brought her here. It was plain to her now. Hallie had wanted to show her an object lesson in what a selfish, possessive wife could do to a fine husband. Lorna’s cheeks burned hotly as she watched Hallie finish the dressing.
For the first time she felt that perhaps it wasn’t all Hallie’s fault that they were so far apart. She wanted to say something to Hallie as they got back into the car, to let her know how grateful she was to know about the Barkers. But she couldn’t find words to say.
She was glad when Hallie broke into her thought, saying casually, “We’re passing Margaret Benson’s home in a few minutes, Mrs. Wife. I promised I’d bring her news about Patty Hamilton.”
She left the sentence unfinished, for Lorna to say whether or not they should go. Lorna nodded briefly.
“I’d like to meet her.”
They stopped before a neat frame house. Along the picket fence tamarisks waved fern-like fronds. Flame-red gladioli lighted a sudden fire at the edge of a pool where small, golden fishes flashed among pink and white water lilies.
Lorna felt a little as though Hallie and Matt – all of them – were wrong about Margaret’s health as she saw her upon the porch. she had expected her to be in bed, pale and worn and twisted with pain.
Instead, a lovely girl – the girl of Carole’s photograph – came down a step or two of the porch, smiling brightly, holding out her hands to Hallie.
“Hallie, I’ve been waiting for you.” She caught the older woman’s hands in a swift, understanding grip, then turned to Lorna, her black eyes bright with the knowledge of who she was. “It’s Mrs. Wire … Lorna … isn’t it? Matt has been telling me all about you. I’m so glad you could call.”
Her voice sounded a little breathless as she led them back up the steps and seated them in the rustic chairs. Lorna’s mind buzzed a little.
So Hallie had been coming here all the time! Margaret had given her away. And Matt knew it, too. He hadn’t warned Lorna. He had wanted the two women to meet as casually as two new friends might meet. He had wanted Lorna to see the woman he was so interested in. He wanted Lorna to know just how well she could be, yet how dangerously ill.
Lorna couldn’t hide her astonishment as she glanced at Margaret. Margaret’s eyes were deep and serious as their glances met and clung.
Margaret spoke very quietly. “Matt has been telling me that you were coming to see me. He has told me about your little scrapbooks. I think you’re a sweet person, Lorna. And perhaps, sometime, you’ll make a little book for Patty Hamilton. It will be some time before she’s up and around.”’
Lorna promised. She felt like crying as Margaret went slowly into the house to ask her aunt to make some punch and bring some of her raisin cookies.
Hallie was watching Lorna, and when Lorna looked up she saw a brief kindness in Hallie’s eyes that was quickly dimmed as Hallie spoke.
“I know you’ve been jealous of Margaret, Mrs. Wire. In a way you haven’t been to blame. Matt is very fond of her. But there’s nothing to fear from any standpoint except your own. Matt is too big and fine a person to ever guess that you were jealous. The idea is completely outside his comprehension.”
Her words were like tiny flails against Lorna’s shamed heart. Impulsively, she moved to Hallie’s side on the big rustic divan, and just as impulsively touched her hand.
“All day long you’ve been trying to help me understand myself. I want to thank you. I …”
She didn’t finish because Margaret and her aunt came out upon the porch. Margaret’s aunt poured the pale lime punch and Margaret put a plate of dainty cookies in Hallie’s hands.
Hallie took one and passed the plate to Lorna. Her usually stern, cool eyes held a little smile. When she spoke her words made warm happiness rush into Lorna’s heart.
“Have a cookie, Lorna. You must be hungry after our long drive.” Then, quickly, lest Lorna’s shaking hands drop the cookie plate, she took it and put it down on the table. Immediately, she began chatting lightly about other things.
Then it was time to go back home. Hallie drove silently. Lorna had very little to say. It was as though both of them knew the door that had been closed between them was now opened a little crack.
Lorna promised herself that she would not make any more mistakes. As long as Hallie was holding out her hands, trying to help, she’d be all right.
And so would John Barker. And Margaret. They had Dr. Matt to lean upon. As long as he was there, they’d be all right, too!