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Bleak House

By: Ardis E. Parshall - August 04, 2014

From the Relief Society Magazine, 1957 –

Bleak House

Florence B. Dunford

“I’m all right, everything’s fine,” Rose Bennett said.

“You’re sure?” That was Walt, wanting the impossible, wanting to be assured of the impossible.

Rose’s gray eyes met his. Everything’s wrong, it’s terrible, you know it’s terrible! She could not help the silent accusation. Still, it was not all Walt’s fault. Perhaps he had done the best he could with the small amount of money, the time he had.

But couldn’t you, her heart cried out, have found a better house than this? Something at least respectable? Something that wouldn’t degrade the children, stamp them all, before they had a chance to prove themselves?

Walt was looking at her anxiously. “You’ve been doing too much. I should have stayed home this week and helped you get settled. Why don’t you make the kids help you?”

Rose shook her dark head. “I’m not tired. Jinny and Cathy have worked their heads off, too.” She smiled a little at the slang. It was like a man, she told herself, not to get at the real reason. And Walt especially. Because he’d done the best he could in finding a house, he felt it must be good enough. Besides, he was gone all day at the vast dry farm up in the hills where he had his new job as foreman.

And Walt and she, well, they were different. Looks, appearance, had always meant a good deal to her.

If there weren’t meat or something nice to fix in the house for company, Rose just said they couldn’t have company. If Walt, in his rather carefree manner, asked them to dinner anyway, Rose suffered. They were just different, that was all, made so by their early environment, the way they were reared. Or, maybe, just because one was a man and the other a woman.

Yet, it was not of herself Rose had been thinking this past week. Today was the first day of school. Jinny, who was seventeen, with her auburn hair and pale complexion and green eyes, should make friends. But children, like grownups, were critical. Once they discovered, and in this small college town everyone would know it already, that the new girls lived in that terrible, ugly, bleak old house by the railroad tracks, Cathy, who was fifteen, even the two small boys, would suffer.

It’s just that we’ve never lived like this, Rose almost told Walt now. In Fremont, where they’d lived since their marriage, they’d had a nice, respectable looking house. Almost a pretty place. Rose had promised herself one day to have the yellow and brown frame painted a clear white edged with green. She had never gotten the clapboard windows she wanted. Still, she had not minded, set back as the house was on the wide green lawn, shaded on the east by the apple orchard, on the west by the fragrant berry bushes and vines.

She lifted her face now for her husband’s kiss. “You go along,” she said. “Everything’s fine.” She steadied herself to keep back the tears that kept demanding to gush forth. She lifted her chin. “We can’t have everything. And it was my idea we move to Gilmore for the schools.”

Walt nodded, kissed her, and was gone. Jinny and Cathy and the two boys had already left for school.

I’ve done as much as I can with the dreadful inside, Rose told herself.

A faint worried cry from one of the bedrooms on the east caught her attention. She hurried into the kitchen, took the bottle from the pan of water where it had been warming on the coal range. The baby was only three months old. She could not have left him for days, even with Jinny and Cathy. He had not been doing well. Until this past week when the doctor in Fremont had given her a new formula, nothing had agreed with him.

After the baby had taken his bottle, she came out of the bedroom and crossed the carpeted floor of the living room. Parting the creamy voile curtains, she looked out front, in a vain hope that things were not as bad as she remembered.

The ugly, treeless, baked dooryard was like a blow in her face. Poor children, to come to a home like this! Poor Jinny and Cathy!

She continued to stand by the window, forcing herself to accept reality.

Across the street in the other direction, toward the west, was a fine brick house. Set back on its wide tree-lined yard, it belonged to the Sheltons, well-to-do dry farmers. The tall curly-haired son was Jinny’s age.

Directly across the street on the west, Rose could see it from her kitchen door, lived the Linley twins. Blonde, petite, gay and happy in their two-story colonial house, Rose had already heard of the colorful, gay parties the girls gave in the big garden, with its weeping willows and flower-bordered walks.

Walt’s words came back to her. “It was all I could find,” he had said. That was all. Six words that made of them outcasts.

Under the stress of her emotion she could think of no work she could do inside. So she went toward the bedroom, the baby in her arms for solace.

“There, there, my pet,” she crooned, rocking him against her. “Don’t you cry. Don’t you cry.”

The baby, wakened from his sound nap, opened his blue eyes and smiled.

By five o’clock Rose had roused herself, determined to face her despair. Walt, whose folks, though English-born, were pioneers in Idaho and Fremont, liked hearty meals, fragrant soups with potatoes and carrots, celery and onions and rice, and lots of meat edged with fat. Rose cooked to please him.

She had expected the girls to rush home the moment their last class was over. Jinny’s sensitive face would be red and tear-streaked and swollen. Jinny cried easily. It would be more like Cathy to go straight to her room, quiet but heartbroken. Even the two boys, six and eight, had not come home. The first hour had seemed like a reprieve from the gallows. Now, as the clock in the front rooms truck five-thirty, Rose became anxious.

She opened the oven door, set the fragrant golden-brown bread pudding on the back of the range. The table in the large kitchen-dining room was already laid. She closed the rear side door now, mindful of curious eyes from across the street. No one would believe, seeing the outside of the house, the surroundings, that well-bred people lived here.

Suddenly the family all burgeoned in on her at once. Even Walt, whom she had not expected until darkness struck. Expecting a havoc, a storm, their voices were light as spring.

“Don’t take time to change your clothes,” Rose told them. “Dinner’s on the table. What made everyone so late?”

Walt, tall in his levis and soft wool shirt, was the only one besides herself who was not dressed in his best. As the bright chatter of the children subsided, he bowed his dark head.

“Our Father in heaven,” he prayed, in the sudden silence, “we thank thee for thy bounty.”

The moment he finished, Rose knew the children would begin their woes. Whatever had made them brave for the moment would be forgotten. Their bitter experiences of the day would come tumbling out.

“Well, what happened today, kids?’ that was Walt, good-natured, careless of his grammar. He turned to Jinny. “Have a nice time your first day of school?”

The two boys began to chatter at once. “We’re in a ball team. We stayed after school to practice. Joey is catcher. We need shoes and a mitt.”

Rose nodded, holding her breath. The boys were like their father, callous to what went on. Tomorrow, next week. It would take them a little longer to realize, to have thrown in their young faces, to admit they would be looked down on, because of the house in which they lived.

Cathy was speaking now, her warm olive skin flushed, her long hazel eyes eager and excited. “The nicest thing happened,” she was saying, and Rose blinked her eyes and felt that she was dreaming.

“The nicest thing happened,” Cathy said again. “At our first class – it was English – Miss Mortensen, that’s the teacher’s name, had all the new students stand and tell their names, where they were from and where they lived.”

Rose held her breath. The children sensed her abstraction. Cathy turned to her and said, “Mother, Mother, are you listening?”

Rose nodded. “And what did you say? What did you tell your … your teacher, where you lived?”

“I told her,” Cathy said, her eyes clear and sweet and steady, “in the old Jensen house down by the depot …”

“Yes,” Rose breathed. All the feelings of the children, what she thought they would be feeling, poured down on her like an avalanche.

Cathy’s eyes were serious, but sparkling still. “And she said …” Cathy looked round the oval table, with its white cloth, triumphantly, for effect, “Miss Mortensen said that it was good to see some really nice people had moved here. Because now it would be fixed up!”

“Fixed … up?” The words faltered from Rose’s lips, sounding stupid, yet lightning-sharp, even to her. “Fixed up?”

It was true that she had done the best she could with the inside. But it was the outside that seemed impossible. Besides that, some men were handy at painting and planting. Walt was not. When work of that sort was done, they had to hire it done.

“Fixed up?” That was Walt. And his eyes, too, were shining. Yet even he could not match the happiness, the exuberance of all the children.

“Know what?” Jinny said, breaking in on her father. Quick tears came into her green eyes. “At noon today I got acquainted with the Linley twins across the street. They’re having a big lawn party this Saturday night, the last of the season, they said.”

No one broke in upon Jinny. There was a happy, I-told-you-so silence from Walt and the other children.

“And that’s not all,” Jinny said, lifting her piquant face proudly. “The dark, curly-haired boy across the street, Dick Shelton, walked home with me from school. He asked me to go to the party with him.”

There was more, of course. Rose found the heart then, and the voice, to tell them about the real improvement in the baby. How he had really, yes, really, laughed up at her that afternoon!

Yet it was not until they were all abed, Walt lying beside her in the quiet of the autumn night, the curtains blowing softly at the open windows, that he told her his news.

“I told Thomas about the house,” he said. Mr. Thomas was owner of the immense dry farm. “Today, he said I might have Henry and a couple of the other hands for a few days, as soon as there’s a lull at the ranch. Henry does all the painting on the main house and the outbuildings. He says we might even round up enough white paint to do our house.

“And that’s not all,” Walt went on. ‘One of the men is a first-rate carpenter. He’s coming tomorrow to measure for those clapboard things you want at the windows.” He chuckled as though it was all to be expected.

Rose stretched out a hand, touched his shoulders lightly. Walt had not been so callous to their needs after all. Like Miss Mortensen said, he was a nice person. Else how could the children be so nice?

It had been Rose herself who had been hopeless and therefore helpless. Feeling that what was, was, and could not be helped or changed.

“And the yard?” For the first time she could even mention the despicable, disreputable yard.

“Oh, the yard,” Walt was yawning. “I’m bringing a small tractor down this Saturday. Henry will help me with that, too. And you know what? Not far from the ranch there’s a whole grove of trees, pines and quaking aspen. Henry says they’ll transplant.”

It was Rose’s turn to yawn now, from sheer happiness. “The children will all help. And I can, too. The baby’s better. It’ll do us both good to be outside in this lovely autumn weather.”



3 Comments »

  1. Such a good story — with a good moral — to help teach good principles of charity and good will. I appreciate the stories you post. Somehow, I think the telling of stories such as this is a more effective way to teach principles that direct sermonizing — but we seem not to tell stories anymore. With our modern sensibilities, we look down our noses with disdain at moralistic stories. In this regard, we haven’t progressed since 1957.

    Comment by ji — August 4, 2014 @ 2:15 pm

  2. This has a lot of good morals. And I want to be Miss Mortensen when I grow up.

    Comment by Carol — August 4, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

  3. Both of my 12 year-olds loved this story, and agree that it is much better than the ones in the Friend or New Era. Lol

    Comment by Juliathepoet — August 11, 2014 @ 4:17 am

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