Just a quick warning: like most books of this era, this book is... kind of offensive racially from our current standpoint, but it's not hateful. I'm going to do my best to handle this delicately.
We don't even get a whole sentence into this book before we enter WTFland.
THERE was a soughing rain asweep that night, with no wind to drive it, yet it ceased and fell, sighed and was hushed incessantly, as by some changing gale.
- I had to look up what "soughing" means. Apparently it means making a whistling/moaning sound.
- It is only a matter of time before Stephenie Meyer uses this word, and probably does it wrong.
- I… don't understand how the rain could make the same noises as the wind WITHOUT the wind. Falling water without rain sounds like pitter-patter.
So we're introduced to our protagonist, Barbara. She's apparently in a carriage, coming from the train station… in the middle of the night. Why not come during the day? That would be less dramatic.
And for some reason she's spooked by the familiar surroundings because… it's dark out.
in the glimpsing lightning she saw scurrying trees against the suave autumn sky, like etchings on bluish paper;
Is this woman on drugs? Apparently she thinks that the trees are walking around, and that the sky is "suave." Suave like charming? The sky is charming?!
the dry, white-brown grasses swirled about the horses feet in that windless rain
Because water makes the air currents move and the grass swirl. That's how it works! Seriously, were there ANY editors in 1888? I'm still on page 1, and already I've found a major WTF!
So the carriage is going really fast, for some reason. Maybe the driver is just really pissed that he hasn't had dinner yet, and wants to finish up this thankless job.
They hurled through narrow gateways like stones from a catapult, rushed past ragged trees whose boles seemed leaping to meet them,
… again, is the main character on drugs? She's talking about how the tree trunks (that's what a bole is) are leaping out at her. Or is this Green Knowe?! HOLY FUCK, THE TREES ARE COMING TO KILL ME! GET ME THE WEED-KILLER!
Then Barbara notices that they are going over a familiar, not very professional bridge that is basically just a few planks, a few vines and a few stones cobbled together. This leaves me with two questions:
- Why the hell are they driving over this death trap?
- Why the hell hasn't someone made a REAL bridge to wherever this woman is going, so people can drive over it without fear of IMMEDIATE DEATH?
- WHY DIDN'T THIS BOOK HAVE AN EDITOR?!
This bridge dipped its lithe middle almost into the waters of a hurling, brown stream, known in the surrounding country as " Machunk Creek." There were various legends regarding the origin of this name. The negroes said that a man had crossed it at one time, carrying a chunk of " fat" light-wood ; when on the middle of the one plank which then served for bridge, he had dropped his pine-knot, and screamed out desperately, " Oh ! my chunk !" Theuce the title of the stream. Barbara, who had always unquestioningly believed this story, could almost fancy that she saw this swart, regretful figure poised now above the hurly of rain-swollen waters, could almost hear his despairing cry.
… I'm sorry, what was this book about again? I seem to have been distracted by a random-as-fuck anecdote about some dude dropping a piece of wood into the stream.
So before she can get out and force the driver to risk HIS life on the bridge, they drive right onto it. She handles this the way any strong smart woman would: She shut her eyes with an infallible womanly instinct, although it was then absolutely dark, caught a fold of her inner lip between her teeth, and pinched the back of her left hand firmly in the palm of her right. I'm not quite sure why she did that. Was she trying to keep from fainting by pinching and biting herself? It's not that scary, lady.
It was not until the next day that Barbara found there had been lanterns, with candles ready for lighting, on each side of her.
But because her aunt is an asshole, she didn't bother to light them.
So they finally reach the country house, and she gets hugged by her aunt. The aunt has the comical name of Fridiswig, so expect me to make fun of that as often as possible. No offense to any Fridiswigs. All two of them. Worldwide.
Her aunt Fridiswig had rushed to meet her, had embraced her, by leaving a moist splash upon her elastic, night-cool cheek,
… a splash? Is Rives suggesting that the aunt kissed her, or is she dripping wet?
Having come all this way, Barbara decides that she wants to go hide in her room instead of talking to her aunt.
She smiled a little drearily as she ran her fingers into a little slit in the stuff, which she had cut there herself, three years ago, while whittling a peg for her easel.
Then her smile widened as she caressed the bloodstains on the seat, and the mummified pinky she had left there.
She had brought no maid with her, having looked forward with a certain pleasure to the ministrations of the maid of her girlhood, a dark-brown creature, with a profile like that of Rameses II.,
… this is what I mean by racist-in-the-style-of-the-times. Seriously, creature? Would "woman" be too hard?!
Also, I assume she means Rameses II in his idealized youthful form, and not…. well… how he looks now.
Said maid is apparently wandering around the room, and trying on Barbara's furs in front of the mirror and touching them because she loves how they feel. This is actually a nice moment, and adds some actual dimension to the maid's personality.
Barbara sat listless, her damp hair unwound about her shoulders, tapping the curled ends lightly against the palm of her hand as she dreamed,
Wait, just a minute ago she was smiling and fondling the damaged furniture, and now she's "listless" and playing with her hair?! This is only a few minutes, you know.
The maid, Martha Ellen, or Rameses, as Barbara called her,
"This is my housekeeper Janine, but I like to call her Xerxes…" And no, I am not going to refer to Martha Ellen as Rameses, because it's STUPID.
So while Martha Ellen is warming her slippers by the fire and shielding her face, Barbara has an EPIC ANGSTGASM! Apparently the maid used to do the exact same thing for her husband Val, and for some reason he laughed at her doing this. Wow, he sounds like a dick. I hope your slippers caught fire, Val.
Where is her husband? I dunno. I assume he died, since divorce was pretty scandalous back then.
She put up both hands to her breast with a movement of anguish. Tears clustered hot and stinging on her lashes, and great breaths that were deeper than sobs thrilled through her from head to foot.
She just couldn't live without Edward Cullen! She had a giant hole in her chest!
I'm only slightly exaggerating. Seriously, seeing this room at her aunt's house is giving her epic angstgasms, which she apparently expected: in the natural course of things, she must expect such painful occurrences twenty times a day; and yet there was a sorrowful sweetness in it, too. Wow, I wonder if I'm going to get really tired of this character.
Finally she finishes her Bella Swan impression and gives us a description of the room.
It was spacious, airy, Southern.
It had stuffed crocodiles on the ceiling.
The chairs and couches were many and capacious.
Oh good, she has furniture to swoon onto several times a day.
The number of mirrors suggested a certain vanity on the part of its occupant: there were eight in all, none of them small, and all framed heavily in old gilt.
… so, it's suggesting that Barbara is vain? Or is she suggesting that her aunt is vain?
She starts wandering around aimlessly, dismissing Martha Ellen and the now-warm slippers. Then she looks at the house again, and glances out the window at the beautiful purple-prose scenery.
The skirt of the sky was strewn from hem to hem with little, flittering, filmy clouds, through which a wet moon shone vaporous;
Um… from that description, I think the sky just wet itself. I mean, she describes it as a skirt… with a wet circle...
the already scarlet holly-berries blinked back at her from the frothy gloom of the shadow-waves.
… the frothy gloom of… what? Shadow-whats?! What is she even looking at? Why are the berries BLINKING AT HER?
So a horse whinnying under her window causes her to close the curtains, and she goes back to drifting around and staring wistfully at stuff. Then she notices something on the writing desk, and promptly does her cry-out-with-grief thing.
How bathos will intrude upon pathos! It is the flippant Tweedledum of a most serious Tweedledee.
Nothing sets the tone for a scene of grief, tragedy and loss…. like a Lewis Carroll reference.
So what has caused her to have another Bella-Swanlike breakdown? Why, it's a half-smoked cigar that her husband put in the ashtray THREE YEARS AGO. She's so devastated that this that she seriously falls to the floor, grabs the cigar, and starts… kissing it.
Um… didn't they clean out ashtrays back then? Did they seriously not clean the place in THREE YEARS? And why has this woman not been taken away by the men in red coats?
All this will not seem overstrained when one knows its origin.
Well, maybe it won't if you're Stephenie Meyer.
In this room, among these identical articles, just three years ago Barbara Pomfret had passed the first three months of an absolutely joyous married life;
They never left the room for three months. The neighbors thought they were dead.
two years ago her husband had died, and she had come back an utterly unhappy woman to the scene of her former happiness.
Not to seem insensitive, but this woman isn't acting like her hubby has been dead for two whole years! I can understand that the surroundings might bring back memories, and I could understand being sad about this… but she's literally acting like her husband just died last week. And there's no hint of a delayed reaction, like she's been repressing her grief and now the surroundings are bringing it all back. She's just stuck
Every chair, book, knick-knack, rug, in this room, was associated in some way with her husband. The very pictures, the toilet-glass, the ornaments on the mantel-shelf, all held for her some memory which stabbed her as she looked ; and yet it was of her own will that she had returned. She did not wish to forget, and she could not better remember than in a place so fraught with memories. She had not, however, calculated the full poignancy of the grief that was about to claim her. As vanished scenes swept across her inner sight, there came with them words and looks and tones innumerable. His arms held her, his breath warmed her, his voice was in her ear, vibrating, actual. She leaped to her feet, stumbling over her heavy gown ; her fascinated, dreading eyes sought the vague gloom behind her, as she hurried to the door. The room was full of his voice, of his sighing, of his laughter. She breathed gaspingly, and caught at the key to unlock the door. It was stiff with long disusage, and refused to turn.
There again ! his laughter, about her, above her, and his lips at her ear. She could hear the words, loving, reckless, impassioned words, not meet for a ghost to utter : " Barbara ! Barbara ! your curled lips are a cup, and your breath is wine. You make me drunk ! drunk !"
She grasped the key with both hands, panting, sobbing, her eyes strained with a mighty, overwhelming panic. Still the senseless bit of brass resisted. She caught up a fold of her gown and wound it about the handle. Now his very lips were on her: they drew her breath, her life.
" O God, help me ! O God, let the door open ! let it open !"
Miss Fridiswig, alone with her knitting, in the dining-room just below, heard a sudden noise as of falling, and burst out into the hall, to meet Rameses with her eyes goggling. They made a simultaneous rush up the stairway, and nearly fell over Barbara, who was lying on her face, half in and half out of her room.
Raineses, who was as strong as mast men of her size, lifted the poor girl bodily, and laid her upon the bed.
They did all the disagreeable, useless things that people generally do to a tainting woman, and by and by, when it was time for her to return to consciousness, she opened her dark eyes, and drew several short, difficult breaths.
" 1 know, I know, " she said.
" You know what ?" coaxed Miss Fridiswig.
" I know, I know, " repeated Barbara, " I know where I am. Must get a new lock to-morrow. Rameses sleep in here to night. What s o clock ?"
" Mos twelve," said Rameses, who was holding Barbara s bare feet in her hands. " You go tuh bade, Miss Fridis. Miss Barb ra, you go tuh bade too."
" Yes, darling, you must, for my sake," urged Miss Fridiswig.
" Not yet ; not yet," said Barbara.
She tried to sit up, and fell back among the big pillows. A sudden shivering shook her throughout. She made another effort, and got her arm about Rameses neck.
" Help me " she panted, " help me off the bed quick. That sofa there
When they had made her comfortable on the sofa, she closed her eyes and lay so still that they thought she had fainted again ; but as Rameses moved to fetch some of the noxious remedies, she pressed down a fair hand on the girl s wool, signifying that she was to remain
" You go tuh bade, Miss Fridis," said Rameses. " Tain t no use two on us settin up."
" No, not a bit," said Barbara. " Please go, Aunt Fridis."
" Ah, let me be of use ! let me be of use !" wailed Miss Fridiswig, casting herself on her knees beside Raraeses, and leaving another warm
splash on Barbara s inert hand.
Barbara, who never willingly hurt the feelings even of a cabman, did not know what to do, until it suddenly occurred to her to faint
again. When she came to herself from this simulated swoon, Rameses had packed Miss Fridiswig, willy-nilly, to her virgin slumbers, and was resuscitating the dead fire by breathing on it, after the Biblical method.
Barbara lay watching her, stung again by an almost intolerable pang. How often had she lain on that very sofa and watched Val trying to imitate the negro method of kindling a fire, until his puffed- out cheeks made him into a very excellent likeness of a wind-god oouchant !
When the wreathing, lilac flames began to whirr about the fresh logs, she called the girl to her.
" Are you very sleepy ?" she said, smiling, a beautiful smile that Martha Ellen remembered. It was associated with countless gifts, and
seemed to breathe of the summer, a season endeared above all others to the sensitive little black.
" Lor ! Yuh looks jes like yuh use tuh !" she exclaimed, regard
less of Barbara s question. " I thought yuh done give up smilin when
[ seed yuh fust tuh-night."
"Did you?" said Barbara. She smiled again, and yielded her
hand graciously to the girl s caresses, repeating her question. Martha
Ellen asserted that she didn t feel sleep " nowhar near bout her."
" But it must be very late ?" Barbara said. " Are all the other
servants in bed?"
Martha Ellen thought so, and slipped a lithe arm about her mis
tress, who stood still for an instant, while the apparent seething of the
articles about her subsided. She was tall, and her figure in its silverisb
dressing-gown of white silk gleamed like a streak of moonlight in the
rich dusk. I once saw a stem of white wild-flowers lean against a
charred pine as she was now leaning against her dark-skinned waiting-
Presently she moved a step or two. The girl moved with her,
bending beneath the bare white arm that rested heavily across her
shoulders. As they paused again, she turned her face up, with a
sideward, expectant movement.
" I was going to say," Barbara began, " that if you know where
the little brass bed is, the one I used to sleep in as a little girl,
I would help you to get it."
" Naw, you ain t ; you ain gwine he p me git nuthin ," said Martha
Her mistress was as positive. " It is entirely too heavy for you to
lift alone," she said. " If you know where it is, I am coming with
you to help you."
They went together down a narrow corridor that turned abruptly
several times, Martha Ellen in front with a candle that died out to a
blue splutter in the many draughts.
Following this elfish light, Barbara found herself at last in the
nursery of her childhood. She looked upward and remembered the
very cracks in the plaster ceiling : there was the identical one that she
had thought resembled the profile of George Washington on the
postage-stamps. Underneath it stood the brass cot. It was some
what tarnished, and the bows of pale-blue ribbon that enlivened its
head-piece were decidedly draggled. She untied them mechanically
and rolled them around her fingers, while Martha Ellen took off the
unsheeted mattresses. How long it was since she had slept in that gay
little bed ! There is nothing that makes us seem so unreal, so unfamil
iar to ourselves, as some pleasant child-possession seen unexpectedly in
She kneeled long beside it that night, with palms pressed hard
against her eyes, forgetting to pray, in a great, struggling effort to
imagine herself once more a child, pleading for her pony s tail to
" grow as long as before the calf chewed it," for " Mammy to be white
in heaven," for " Satan to be forgiven after a long, long, long time,"
for herself to be made a "good little girl and not so cross with
At first she was not conscious of any especial emotion, as she bent
against the cold linen of the turned-back bedclothes ; she had no par
ticular sensation either of happiness or unhappiness ; but presently vast
waves of passionate regret, and longing, and rebellion, surged over her,
each one, as it swelled and formed, more vast and annihilating than
the other. The undertow seemed dragging her down, down. God s
imagined face took on a horrible grinning. The ministering angels
seemed deformed creatures who writhed, and twisted, and uttered wan
ton gigglings as they circled about the Throne after the fashion of the
THE QUICK OR THE DEADt 439
witches in " Macbeth" about the caldron. Nothing seemed good ; noth
ing seemed kind. She could not even think of her husband as having
existed. He was a mere mass of repulsive formlessness in a slimy
wedge of earth ; perhaps he was not even that. She imagined his
ghastly skeleton tricked out in all the mockery of fashionable attire.
What delightful, smart, of-the- world- worldly coats he had worn !
Why, if he were a skeleton now, one could see his tailor s name in
gilt letters through his spinal column ! Ha ! ha ! ha ! Ha ! ha ! ha !
She had laughed silently at first, then in a choking whisper, then in a
ringing peal of sound that clashed through the silent house, chilling
the blood in Martha Ellen s rigid, black body.
It did not occur to her to go to her mistress. She sat up on the
pallet where she was sleeping for the night, folded herself in her own
embrace, and muttered between her clacking teeth,
" Miss Barb ra done gone mad ! she done gone mad ! / dunno
what tuh do ! Gord knows I dunno what tuh do !" Then all as sud
denly the laughter ceased.
There seemed to Barbara to be some glowing, resplendent presence
about her, lifting up her heart as it were with both hands. She took
down her palms from her strained eyes, and stared into the almost
absolute gloom. She even reached out her arms into it. The darkness seemed to cling about her. Little, every-day noises distracted her
attention, the snap of the dying fire as it settled among its ashes, the
lull and sough of an awakening wind through the branches of the tulip-
trees, the noise that a mouse made dragging some little thing along
the floor. She rose stiffly to her feet, and cowered shivering down
among the icy sheets. Again she held out her arms. The pressure of
a warm, curly head against her breast was with her as an actuality.
" Oh, Val," she whispered, " oh, Val ! Oh, darling, mine !
mine ! mine ! Touch me, come to me, here in the darkness, here
where you used to love me. I will not be afraid, no, not the least,
not the least. Oh ! God God ! he does not hear me ! he cannot hear
me ! he does not care any more."
She flung herself half out of her childhood s bed upon the large one
of carved mahogany near which it stood, sobbing, shuddering, kissing
wildly the silken coverlet and pillows that rose softly through the thick
firelight, so finally slept, worn out, desolate, chilled to the very core
of soul and body.