Edith Carson the milliner, whom fate had thrown into the company of McGregor, was a frail woman of thirty-four and lived alone in two rooms at the back of her millinery store. Her life was almost devoid of colour. On Sunday morning she wrote a long letter to her family on an Indiana farm and then put on a hat from among the samples in the show case along the wall and went to church, sitting by herself in the same seat Sunday after Sunday and afterward remembering nothing of the sermon.
On Sunday afternoon Edith went by street-car to a park and walked alone under the trees. If it threatened rain she sat in the larger of the two rooms back of the shop sewing on new dresses for herself or for a sister who had married a blacksmith in the Indiana town and who had four children.
Edith had soft mouse-coloured hair and grey eyes with small brown spots on the iris. She was so slender that she wore pads about her body under her dress to fill it out. In her youth she had had a sweetheart--a fat round-cheeked boy who lived on the next farm. Once they had gone together to the fair at the county seat and coming home in the buggy at night he had put his arm about her and kissed her. "You ain't very big," he had said.
Edith sent to a mail order house in Chicago and bought the padding which she wore under her dress With it came an oil which she rubbed on herself. The label on the bottle spoke of the contents with great respect as a wonderful developer. The heavy pads wore raw places on her side against which her clothes rubbed but she bore the pain with grim stoicism, remembering what the fat boy had said.
After Edith came to Chicago and opened a shop of her own she had a letter from her former admirer. "It pleases me to think that the same wind that blows over me blows also over you," it said. After that one letter she did not hear from him again. He had the phrase out of a book he had read and had written the letter to Edith that he might use it. After the letter had gone he thought of her frail figure and repented of the impulse that had tricked him into writing. Half in alarm he began courting and soon married another girl.
Sometimes on her rare visits home Edith had seen her former lover driving along the road. The sister who had married the blacksmith said that he was stingy, that his wife had nothing to wear but a cheap calico dress and that on Saturday he drove off to town alone, leaving her to milk the cows and feed the pigs and horses. Once he encountered Edith on the road and tried to get her into the wagon to ride with him. Although she had walked along the road ignoring him she took the letter about the wind that blew over them both out of a drawer on spring evenings or after a walk in the park and read it over. After she had read it she sat in the darkness at the front of the store looking through the screen door at people in the street and wondered what life would mean to her if she had a man on whom she could bestow her love. In her heart she believed that, unlike the wife of the fat youth, she would have borne children.
In Chicago Edith Carson had made money. She had a genius for economy in the management of her business. In six years she had cleared a large debt from the shop and had a comfortable balance in the bank. Girls who worked in factories or in stores came and left most of their meagre surplus in her shop and other girls who didn't work came in, throwing dollars about and talking about "gentlemen friends." Edith hated the bargaining but attended to it with shrewdness and with a quiet disarming little smile on her face. What she liked was to sit quietly in the room and trim hats. When the business grew she had a woman to tend the shop and a girl to sit beside her and help with the hats. She had a friend, the wife of a motorman on the street-car line, who sometimes came to see her in the evening. The friend was a plump little woman, dissatisfied with her marriage, and she got Edith to make her several new hats a year for which she paid nothing.
Edith went to the dance at which she met McGregor with the motorman's wife and a girl who lived upstairs over a bakery next door to the shop, The dance was held in a hall over a saloon and was given for the benefit of a political organisation in which the baker was a leader. The wife of the baker came in and sold Edith two tickets, one for herself and one for the wife of the motorman who happened to be sitting with her at the time.
That evening after the motorman's wife had gone home Edith decided to go to the dance and the decision was something like an adventure in itself. The night was hot and sultry, lightning flashed in the sky and clouds of dust swept down the street. Edith sat in the darkness behind the bolted screen door and looked at the people who hurried homeward down the street. A wave of revolt at the narrowness and emptiness of her life ran through her. Tears sprang to her eyes. She closed the shop door and going into the room at the back lighted the gas and stood looking at herself in the mirror. "I'll go to the dance," she thought. "Perhaps I shall get a man. If he won't marry me he can have what he wants of me anyway."
In the dance hall Edith sat demurely by the wall near a window and watched the couples whirl about on the floor. Through an open door she could see couples sitting in another room around tables and drinking beer. A tall young man in white trousers and white slippers went about on the dance floor. He smiled and bowed to the women. Once he started across the floor toward Edith and her heart beat rapidly, but just when she thought he intended to speak to her and to the motorman's wife he turned and went to another part of the room. Edith followed him with her eyes, admiring his white trousers and his shining white teeth.
The wife of the motorman went away with a small straight man with a grey moustache whom Edith thought had unpleasant eyes and two girls came and sat beside her. They were customers of her store and lived together in a flat over a grocery on Monroe Street. Edith had heard the girl who sat in the workroom with her speak slightingly of them. The three sat together along the wall and talked of hats.
And then across the floor of the dance hall came two men, a huge red- haired fellow and a little man with a black beard. The two women hailed them and the five sat together making a party by the wall, the little man keeping up a running stream of comments about the people on the floor with Edith's two companions. A dance struck up and taking one of the women the black-bearded man danced away. Edith and the other woman again talked of hats. The huge fellow beside her said nothing but followed the women about the dance hall with his eyes. Edith thought she had never seen so homely a fellow.
At the end of the dance the black-bearded man went through the door into the room filled with little tables and made a sign to the red- haired man to follow. A boyish looking fellow appeared and went away with the other woman and Edith sat alone on the bench by the wall beside McGregor.
"This place doesn't interest me," said McGregor quickly. "I don't like to sit watching people hop about on their toes. If you want to come with me we'll get out of here and go to some place where we can talk and get acquainted."
* * * * *
The little milliner walked across the floor on the arm of McGregor, her heart jumping with excitement. "I've got a man," she thought, exulting. That the man had deliberately chosen her she knew. She had heard the introductions and the bantering talk of the black-bearded man and had noted the indifference of the big man to the other women.
Edith looked at her companion's huge frame and forgot his homeliness. Into her mind came a picture of the fat boy, grown into a man, driving down the road in the wagon and leeringly asking her to ride with him. A flood of anger at the memory of the look of greedy assurance in his eyes came over her. "This one could knock him over a six-rail fence," she thought.
"Where are we going now?" she asked.
McGregor looked down at her. "To some place where we can talk," he said. "I was sick of this place. You ought to know where we're going. I'm going with you. You aren't going with me."
McGregor wished he were in Coal Creek. He felt he would like to take this woman over the hill and sit on the log to talk of his father.
As they walked along Monroe Street Edith thought of the resolution she had made as she stood before the mirror in her room at the back of the shop on the evening when she had decided to come to the dance. She wondered if the great adventure was about to come to her and her hand trembled on McGregor's arm. A hot wave of hope and fear shot through her.
At the door of the millinery shop she fumbled with uncertain hands as she unlocked the door. A delicious feeling shook her. She felt like a bride, glad and yet ashamed and afraid.
In the room at the back of the shop McGregor lighted the gas and pulling off his overcoat threw it on the couch at the side of the room. He was not in the least excited and with a steady hand lighted the fire in the little stove and then looking up he asked Edith if he might smoke. He had the air of a man come home to his own house and the woman sat on the edge of her chair to unpin her hat and waited hopefully to see what course the night's adventure would take.
For two hours McGregor sat in the rocking chair in Edith Carson's room and talked of Coal Creek and of his life in Chicago. He talked freely, letting himself go as a man might in talking to one of his own people after a long absence. His attitude and the quiet ring in his voice confused and puzzled Edith. She had expected something quite different.
Going to the little room at the side she brought forth a teakettle and prepared to make tea. The big man still sat in her chair smoking and talking. A delightful feeling of safety and coziness crept over her. She thought her room beautiful but mingled with her satisfaction was a faint grey streak of fear. "Of course he won't come back again," she thought.