Saturday, May 17, 2008
The Foreunner (1:1): What Diantha Did, Chapter I: "Handicapped" (Serial Fiction, Charlotte Perkins Gilman)
--For a partner or patron,
But helpless and hapless is he
Who is ridden, inextricably,
--By a fond old mer-matron.
The Warden house was more impressive in appearance than its neighbors.
It had "grounds," instead of a yard or garden; it had wide pillared
porches and "galleries," showing southern antecedents; moreover, it had
a cupola, giving date to the building, and proof of the continuing
ambitions of the builders.
The stately mansion was covered with heavy flowering vines, also with
heavy mortgages. Mrs. Roscoe Warden and her four daughters reposed
peacefully under the vines, while Roscoe Warden, Jr., struggled
desperately under the mortgages.
A slender, languid lady was Mrs. Warden, wearing her thin but still
brown hair in "water-waves" over a pale high forehead. She was sitting
on a couch on the broad, rose-shaded porch, surrounded by billowing
masses of vari-colored worsted. It was her delight to purchase skein on
skein of soft, bright-hued wool, cut it all up into short lengths, tie
them together again in contrasting colors, and then crochet this hashed
rainbow into afghans of startling aspect. California does not call for
afghans to any great extent, but "they make such acceptable presents,"
Mrs. Warden declared, to those who questioned the purpose of her work;
and she continued to send them off, on Christmases, birthdays, and minor
weddings, in a stream of pillowy bundles. As they were accepted, they
must have been acceptable, and the stream flowed on.
Around her, among the gay blossoms and gayer wools, sat her four
daughters, variously intent. The mother, a poetic soul, had named them
musically and with dulcet rhymes: Madeline and Adeline were the two
eldest, Coraline and Doraline the two youngest. It had not occurred to
her until too late that those melodious terminations made it impossible
to call one daughter without calling two, and that "Lina" called them
"Mis' Immerjin," said a soft voice in the doorway, "dere pos'tively
ain't no butter in de house fer supper."
"No butter?" said Mrs. Warden, incredulously. "Why, Sukey, I'm sure we
had a tub sent up last--last Tuesday!"
"A week ago Tuesday, more likely, mother," suggested Dora.
"Nonsense, Dora! It was this week, wasn't it, girls?" The mother
appealed to them quite earnestly, as if the date of that tub's delivery
would furnish forth the supper-table; but none of the young ladies save
Dora had even a contradiction to offer.
"You know I never notice things," said the artistic Cora; and "the
de-lines," as their younger sisters called them, said nothing.
"I might borrow some o' Mis' Bell?" suggested Sukey; "dat's nearer 'n'
"Yes, do, Sukey," her mistress agreed. "It is so hot. But what have
you done with that tubful?"
"Why, some I tuk back to Mis' Bell for what I borrered befo'--I'm always
most careful to make return for what I borrers--and yo' know, Mis'
Warden, dat waffles and sweet potaters and cohn bread dey do take
butter; to say nothin' o' them little cakes you all likes so well--an'
de fried chicken, an'--"
"Never mind, Sukey; you go and present my compliments to Mrs. Bell, and
ask her for some; and be sure you return it promptly. Now, girls, don't
let me forget to tell Ross to send up another tub."
"We can't seem to remember any better than you can, mother," said
Adeline, dreamily. "Those details are so utterly uninteresting."
"I should think it was Sukey's business to tell him," said Madeline with
decision; while the "a-lines" kept silence this time.
"There! Sukey's gone!" Mrs. Warden suddenly remarked, watching the
stout figure moving heavily away under the pepper trees. "And I meant
to have asked her to make me a glass of shrub! Dora, dear, you run and
get it for mother."
Dora laid down her work, not too regretfully, and started off.
"That child is the most practical of any of you," said her mother; which
statement was tacitly accepted. It was not extravagant praise.
Dora poked about in the refrigerator for a bit of ice. She ho no idea
of the high cost of ice in that region--it came from "the store," like
all their provisions. It did not occur to her that fish and milk and
melons made a poor combination in flavor; or that the clammy,
sub-offensive smell was not the natural and necessary odor of
refrigerators. Neither did she think that a sunny corner of the back
porch near the chimney, though convenient, was an ill-selected spot for
a refrigerator. She couldn't find the ice-pick, so put a big piece of
ice in a towel and broke it on the edge of the sink; replaced the
largest fragment, used what she wanted, and left the rest to filter
slowly down through a mass of grease and tea-leaves; found the raspberry
vinegar, and made a very satisfactory beverage which her mother received
with grateful affection.
"Thank you, my darling," she said. "I wish you'd made a pitcherful."
"Why didn't you, Do?" her sisters demanded.
"You're too late," said Dora, hunting for her needle and then for her
thimble, and then for her twist; "but there's more in the kitchen."
"I'd rather go without than go into the kitchen," said Adeline; "I do
despise a kitchen." And this seemed to be the general sentiment; for no
"My mother always liked raspberry shrub," said Mrs. Warden; "and your
Aunt Leicester, and your Raymond cousins."
Mrs. Warden had a wide family circle, many beloved relatives,
"connections" of whom she was duly proud and "kin" in such widening
ramifications that even her carefully reared daughters lost track of
"You young people don't seem to care about your cousins at all!" pursued
their mother, somewhat severely, setting her glass on the railing, from
whence it was presently knocked off and broken.
"That's the fifth!" remarked Dora, under breath.
"Why should we, Ma?" inquired Cora. "We've never seen one of
them--except Madam Weatherstone!"
"We'll never forget her!" said Madeline, with delicate decision,
laying down the silk necktie she was knitting for Roscoe. "What
beautiful manners she had!"
"How rich is she, mother? Do you know?" asked Dora.
"Rich enough to do something for Roscoe, I'm sure, if she had a proper
family spirit," replied Mrs. Warden. "Her mother was own cousin to my
grandmother--one of the Virginia Paddingtons. Or she might do something
for you girls."
"I wish she would!" Adeline murmured, softly, her large eyes turned to
the horizon, her hands in her lap over the handkerchief she was marking
"Don't be ungrateful, Adeline," said her mother, firmly. "You have a
good home and a good brother; no girl ever had a better."
"But there is never anything going on," broke in Coraline, in a tone of
complaint; "no parties, no going away for vacations, no anything."
"Now, Cora, don't be discontented! You must not add a straw to dear
Roscoe's burdens," said her mother.
"Of course not, mother; I wouldn't for the world. I never saw her but
that once; and she wasn't very cordial. But, as you say, she might do
something. She might invite us to visit her."
"If she ever comes back again, I'm going to recite for her," said, Dora,
Her mother gazed fondly on her youngest. "I wish you could, dear," she
agreed. "I'm sure you have talent; and Madam Weatherstone would
recognize it. And Adeline's music too. And Cora's art. I am very
proud of my girls."
Cora sat where the light fell well upon her work. She was illuminating
a volume of poems, painting flowers on the margins, in appropriate
"I wonder if he'll care for it?" she said, laying down her brush and
holding the book at arm's length to get the effect.
"Of course he will!" answered her mother, warmly. "It is not only the
beauty of it, but the affection! How are you getting on, Dora?"
Dora was laboring at a task almost beyond her fourteen years, consisting
of a negligee shirt of outing flannel, upon the breast of which she was
embroidering a large, intricate design--for Roscoe. She was an
ambitious child, but apt to tire in the execution of her large projects.
"I guess it'll be done," she said, a little wearily. "What are you going
to give him, mother?"
"Another bath-robe; his old one is so worn. And nothing is too good for
"He's coming," said Adeline, who was still looking down the road; and
they all concealed their birthday work in haste.
A tall, straight young fellow, with an air of suddenly-faced maturity
upon him, opened the gate under the pepper trees and came toward them.
He had the finely molded features we see in portraits of handsome
ancestors, seeming to call for curling hair a little longish, and a rich
profusion of ruffled shirt. But his hair was sternly short, his shirt
severely plain, his proudly carried head spoke of effort rather than of
ease in its attitude.
Dora skipped to meet him, Cora descended a decorous step or two.
Madeline and Adeline, arm in arm, met him at the piazza edge, his mother
lifted her face.
"Well, mother, dear!" Affectionately he stooped and kissed her, and she
held his hand and stroked it lovingly. The sisters gathered about with
teasing affection, Dora poking in his coat-pocket for the stick candy
her father always used to bring her, and her brother still remembered.
"Aren't you home early, dear?" asked Mrs. Warden.
"Yes; I had a little headache"--he passed his hand over his
forehead--"and Joe can run the store till after supper, anyhow." They
flew to get him camphor, cologne, a menthol-pencil. Dora dragged forth
the wicker lounge. He was laid out carefully and fanned and fussed over
till his mother drove them all away.
"Now, just rest," she said. "It's an hour to supper time yet!" And she
covered him with her latest completed afghan, gathering up and carrying
away the incomplete one and its tumultuous constituents.
He was glad of the quiet, the fresh, sweet air, the smell of flowers
instead of the smell of molasses and cheese, soap and sulphur matches.
But the headache did not stop, nor the worry that caused it. He loved
his mother, he loved his sisters, he loved their home, but he did not
love the grocery business which had fallen so unexpectedly upon him at
his father's death, nor the load of debt which fell with it.
That they need never have had so large a "place" to "keep up" did not
occur to him. He had lived there most of his life, and it was home.
That the expenses of running the household were three times what they
needed to be, he did not know. His father had not questioned their
style of living, nor did he. That a family of five women might, between
them, do the work of the house, he did not even consider.
Mrs. Warden's health was never good, and since her husband's death she
had made daily use of many afghans on the many lounges of the house.
Madeline was "delicate," and Adeline was "frail"; Cora was "nervous,"
Dora was "only a child." So black Sukey and her husband Jonah did the
work of the place, so far as it was done; and Mrs. Warden held it a
miracle of management that she could "do with one servant," and the
height of womanly devotion on her daughters' part that they dusted the
parlor and arranged the flowers.
Roscoe shut his eyes and tried to rest, but his problem beset him
ruthlessly. There was the store--their one and only source of income.
There was the house, a steady, large expense. There were five women to
clothe and keep contented, beside himself. There was the unappeasable
demand of the mortgage--and there was Diantha.
When Mr. Warden died, some four years previously, Roscoe was a lad of
about twenty, just home from college, full of dreams of great service to
the world in science, expecting to go back for his doctor's degree next
year. Instead of which the older man had suddenly dropped beneath the
burden he had carried with such visible happiness and pride, such
unknown anxiety and straining effort; and the younger one had to step
into the harness on the spot.
He was brave, capable, wholly loyal to his mother and sisters, reared in
the traditions of older days as to a man's duty toward women. In his
first grief for his father, and the ready pride with which he undertook
to fill his place, he had not in the least estimated the weight of care
he was to carry, nor the time that he must carry it. A year, a year or
two, a few years, he told himself, as they passed, and he would make
more money; the girls, of course, would marry; he could "retire" in time
and take up his scientific work again. Then--there was Diantha.
When he found he loved this young neighbor of theirs, and that she loved
him, the first flush of happiness made all life look easier. They had
been engaged six months--and it was beginning to dawn upon the young man
that it might be six years--or sixteen years--before he could marry.
He could not sell the business--and if he could, he knew of no better
way to take care of his family. The girls did not marry, and even when
they did, he had figured this out to a dreary certainty, he would still
not be free. To pay the mortgages off, and keep up the house, even
without his sisters, would require all the money the store would bring
in for some six years ahead. The young man set his teeth hard and
turned his head sharply toward the road.
And there was Diantha.
She stood at the gate and smiled at him. He sprang to his feet,
headacheless for the moment, and joined her. Mrs. Warden, from the
lounge by her bedroom window, saw them move off together, and sighed.
"Poor Roscoe!" she said to herself. "It is very hard for him. But he
carries his difficulties nobly. He is a son to be proud of." And she
wept a little.
Diantha slipped her hand in his offered arm--he clasped it warmly with
his, and they walked along together.
"You won't come in and see mother and the girls?"
"No, thank you; not this time. I must get home and get supper.
Besides, I'd rather see just you."
He felt it a pity that there were so many houses along the road here,
but squeezed her hand, anyhow.
She looked at him keenly. "Headache?" she asked.
"Yes; it's nothing; it's gone already."
"Worry?" she asked.
"Yes, I suppose it is," he answered. "But I ought not to worry. I've
got a good home, a good mother, good sisters, and--you!" And he took
advantage of a high hedge and an empty lot on either side of them.
Diantha returned his kiss affectionately enough, but seemed preoccupied,
and walked in silence till he asked her what she was thinking about.
"About you, of course," she answered, brightly. "There are things I want
to say; and yet--I ought not to."
"You can say anything on earth to me," he answered.
"You are twenty-four," she began, musingly.
"Admitted at once."
"And I'm twenty-one and a half."
"That's no such awful revelation, surely!"
"And we've been engaged ever since my birthday," the girl pursued.
"All these are facts, dearest."
"Now, Ross, will you be perfectly frank with me? May I ask you an--an
"You may ask me any question you like; it couldn't be impertinent."
"You'll be scandalised, I know--but--well, here goes. What would you
think if Madeline--or any of the girls--should go away to work?"
He looked at her lovingly, but with a little smile on his firm mouth.
"I shouldn't allow it," he said.
"O--allow it? I asked you what you'd think."
"I should think it was a disgrace to the family, and a direct reproach
to me," be answered. "But it's no use talking about that. None of the
girls have any such foolish notion. And I wouldn't permit it if they
Diantha smiled. "I suppose you never would permit your wife to work?"
"My widow might have to--not my wife." He held his fine head a trifle
higher, and her hand ached for a moment.
"Wouldn't you let me work--to help you, Ross?"
"My dearest girl, you've got something far harder than that to do for
me, and that's wait."
His face darkened again, and he passed his hand over his forehead.
"Sometimes I feel as if I ought not to hold you at all!" he burst out,
bitterly. "You ought to be free to marry a better man."
"There aren't any!" said Diantha, shaking her head slowly from side to
side. "And if there were--millions--I wouldn't marry any of 'em. I
love you" she firmly concluded.
"Then we'll just wait," said he, setting his teeth on the word, as if
he would crush it. "It won't be hard with you to help. You're better
worth it than Rachael and Leah together." They walked a few steps
"But how about science?" she asked him.
"I don't let myself think of it. I'll take that up later. We're young
enough, both of us, to wait for our happiness."
"And have you any idea--we might as well face the worst--how many years
do you think that will be, dearest?"
He was a little annoyed at her persistence. Also, though he would not
admit the thought, it did not seem quite the thing for her to ask. A
woman should not seek too definite a period of waiting. She ought to
trust--to just wait on general principles.
"I can face a thing better if I know just what I'm facing," said the
girl, quietly, "and I'd wait for you, if I had to, all my life. Will it
be twenty years, do you think?"
He looked relieved. "Why, no, indeed, darling. It oughtn't to be at
the outside more than five. Or six," he added, honest though reluctant.
"You see, father had no time to settle anything; there were outstanding
accounts, and the funeral expenses, and the mortgages. But the business
is good; and I can carry it; I can build it up." He shook his broad
shoulders determinedly. "I should think it might be within five,
perhaps even less. Good things happen sometimes--such as you, my heart's
They were at her gate now, and she stood a little while to say
good-night. A step inside there was a seat, walled in by evergreen,
roofed over by the wide acacia boughs. Many a long good-night had they
exchanged there, under the large, brilliant California moon. They sat
there, silent, now.
Diantha's heart was full of love for him, and pride and confidence in
him; but it was full of other feelings, too, which he could not fathom.
His trouble was clearer to her than to him; as heavy to bear. To her
mind, trained in all the minutiae of domestic economy, the Warden family
lived in careless wastefulness. That five women--for Dora was older
than she had been when she began to do housework--should require
servants, seemed to this New England-born girl mere laziness and pride.
That two voting women over twenty should prefer being supported by their
brother to supporting themselves, she condemned even more sharply.
Moreover, she felt well assured that with a different family to
"support," Mr. Warden would never have broken down so suddenly and
irrecoverably. Even that funeral--her face hardened as she thought of
the conspicuous "lot," the continual flowers, the monument (not wholly
paid for yet, that monument, though this she did not know)--all that
expenditure to do honor to the man they had worked to death (thus
brutally Diantha put it) was probably enough to put off their happiness
for a whole year.
She rose at last, her hand still held in his. "I'm sorry, but I've got
to get supper, dear," she said, "and you must go. Good-night for the
present; you'll be round by and by?"
"Yes, for a little while, after we close up," said he, and took himself
off, not too suddenly, walking straight and proud while her eves were on
him, throwing her a kiss from the corner; but his step lagging and his
headache settling down upon him again as he neared the large house with
Diantha watched him out of sight, turned and marched up the path to her
own door, her lips set tight, her well-shaped head as straightly held as
his. "It's a shame, a cruel, burning shame!" she told herself
rebelliously. "A man of his ability. Why, he could do anything, in his
own work! And he loved it so!
"To keep a grocery store--
"And nothing to show for all that splendid effort!
"They don't do a thing? They just live--and 'keep house!' All those
"Six years? Likely to be sixty! But I'm not going to wait!"
Originally published in Forerunner: 1:1 (November 1909).
Etext from Project Gutenberg.
This public domain text has been presented as found (with some minor format changes); this website and its owners are not responsible for errors, substantive and/or minor.