Authors: LaVyrle Spencer
He finally faced the stove again, stretched out with his hands on his stomach, slung down low with the nape of his neck hooked on the chair back.
"Did you really have to scream that to the empty rooms when I was gone?"
"Oh, don't let your ego swell up so," she said testily. "I hated you every time I did it."
He rolled his face her way.
"You never hated me."
"Yes I did."
"You hate me now?"
But instead of answering, she stretched out on her chair too, putting her feet up on the fender beside his.
"Tell me now that you hate me," he challenged, moving his foot to cover the top of hers.
"I will if you don't get your foot off mine and leave here this very minute." He got her foot now between both of his, rubbed it sensuously.
She looked at him to find the old teasing smile back on his lips, certain at that moment that if she could make him believe her, she would at last be free of him. She lounged there on her chair, just as indolently as he, and said without a qualm, "You are still convinced that forcefulness is strength, aren't you? I can't make you go and you know it. But I can repeat what I said long ago, that David Melcher has all the beautiful and gentle strengths which I admire in a man, and I'm going to marry him for them."
Jesse perused her silently for a moment, then reached out and took her hand. Her heart did crazy things, but she watched his thumb stroke hers and kept outward appearances unruffled.
"You know, I think you really mean it."
"I do," she said, letting him have his way with her hand to prove that she was no longer affected by him.
"Is he good to you?" Jesse asked, and she suddenly wanted to lace her fingers with his and pull that hand against her stomach. This was the hardest of all—it always was—when Jesse became concerned and caring and let it show in his voice and his touch.
"Always… and in all ways," she answered softly.
The wind moaned about something that hurt.
"And is he good
The snow tittered its secrets against the house.
"Abbie?" he persisted when she didn't answer.
"They're one and the same."
"No they're not."
"Then perhaps the question is, am I good for him."
"That goes without saying," came Jesse's gentle words.
To their joined hands she said, "Don't be kind. It's when you've been kind that we've traditionally made fools of ourselves."
That broke the spell and he released her hand with a light laugh, saying, "Tell me all about your plans. I really want to hear them."
Funny, she thought, but here she was two days away from her wedding and she'd never had a friend with whom to discuss it. How ironic that it should be Jesse who drew her out. But he was right about one thing—they could always talk, and by now she was feeling very comfortable with him. And for some reason she was telling him everything. All about the wedding plans, the reception plans, and about how hard she and David had worked setting up the store. She told him they were going to Colorado Springs on their honeymoon.
He quirked a cute sideways smile at her and teased, "Oh, so I'm paying for a honeymoon too?" But then he told her that the store was nicely done. He could see her hand in it.
And she told how her mother's seed-pearl headpiece had worried her by not arriving until today for the photograph tomorrow. He asked who she'd hired to take it and told her he knew Damon Smith. Smith did good work and she'd be pleased. Then she made him laugh by asking him if he really was a photographer then, and when he smiled at her and said, "You mean you still don't believe me," they ended up laughing together.
They were getting very lazy and woozy-tired by now, and the conversation was becoming a little punchy and lethargic. She told him he looked more like an outlaw than a photographer in those clothes of his, and he asked if she preferred him in that verdigris suit and she admitted no, these clothes suited him better. From time to time during this lazy exchange, he'd cast that damnably sleepy grin her way before they'd both stare at the isinglass window again, all natural and relaxed and getting sleepier and looser by the minute. The hour ceased to matter as they talked on into the stormy night.
He told her about how he and Jim had started out surveying on a railroad crew and had gone from there to blasting tunnels, building trestles, and even laying tracks before they'd finally started laying down rails of their own, beginning with one little spur line, because by that time they could see the money was not in laying down rails but in owning them. She'd see, he said, when she got to Colorado Springs where all the railroad barons built their mansions.
"You too?" she asked indolently.
"No," he laughed, he didn't go for that stuff. Besides, his railroad wasn't really that big. But he talked more about how photography had started as a diversion for him, then how he'd come to love it.
By this time he was slung low upon his chair, feet crossed on the fender, contented, half-asleep. Still he asked, "And you believe me now?"
"Yes, I guess I do."
It had taken a long time to hear her say that, a long time and a lot of misunderstandings.
The howling night sounds came and went as they sat, listening in companionable silence now.
"It's very late," Abbie finally said. "I think you should be going or my photograph will be of one very wrinkled looking bride tomorrow."
He chuckled, hands rising and falling on his stomach, remembering. "Just like the first time I ever saw you. God, you were a mess, Abbie."
"You certainly have a way with words." But they were both too lazy to care anymore. They rolled their heads to look at each other.
"Don't let me fool you, though, Abbie," he said quietly.
He'd never change, she realized. He'd always be the same teasing Jesse. But he was not for her.
"I'm glad we talked," he said, sitting up at last, stretching, then yawning widely.
She followed suit, stiff and tired. "So am I. But Jesse?"
"Mmm?" he said, blinking slow at her, his hands hanging limp between his knees.
"Could you sneak back into your room without being seen, or will I have to think up quick excuses for David again?"
"Only a fool would be up this late. I'd be sneaking for nothing."
"You will try not to be seen, though, won't you?"
"Yes, Abbie." And for once he didn't tease.
He tensed every muscle in his body then, grasping the back of one hand, stretching them both out before him while he perched on the very edge of his chair in one of those quivering, shivering, all-over stretches that involves legs, stomach, neck, arms, even head. She'd seen him do it a hundred times before.
Then he doubled up and began slowly pulling his boots on. Watching, she recalled once when she'd helped him do that.
He stood. He stretched again. He tucked his shirttails in and she got to her feet, standing uncertainly beside him.
He hooked a thumb in his belt and stood there looking at her.
"I guess I'm not invited to the wedding, huh?"
She stilled the wild thrumming of her heart and smiled. "Mr DuFrayne, you are incorrigible."
Without taking his eyes off her, he reached for his jacket from the back of the chair and shrugged it on.
She stood watching every movement, hugging her arms.
The jacket was on. But instead of buttoning it up, he used the front panels to hang his hands on, then just stood there that way, making no move toward the door.
"Well…" he said, relative to nothing. She smiled shakily, then shrugged.
"Well…" she repeated stupidly.
Then their eyes met. Neither of them smiled.
"Do I get to kiss the bride before I go?" he asked, but there was a husky note of emotion in his voice.
"No!" she exclaimed too quickly, and backed a step away from him, but tripped on the chair rung behind her. He reached for her elbow to keep her from falling, then pulled her slowly, slowly, inexorably into the deep, fuzzy pile of his jacket front. His eyes slid shut while he cupped the back of her head to keep her there against him.
Abbie, he thought, my little hummingbird.
And like the heart of the hummingbird, which beats faster than all others in creation, the heart of Abigail McKenzie felt as if it would beat its way out of her body.
Standing against Jesse felt nothing whatever like standing against David earlier Jesse's coat was more bulky but through all these thick, thick layers of sheepskin she could feel the thrum of his heart.
"Be happy, Abbie," he said against her hair, and kissed it.
She squeezed her eyes shut tight while a button impressed itself into the soft skin of her cheek.
"I will," she said against the sheepskin and his hammering heart. The big hand moved in her hair, petting it, smoothing it down against her neck, tightening almost painfully as he held her tightly against him for one last second.
Then he stepped back, his hands trailing down her arms until he captured her hands. With a last searching look into her startled eyes, he took her palms to his cheeks and placed them there for a moment, her thumbs resting at the outer corners of his black moustache. His eyelids slid closed and trembled for just a moment. Then he opened them again and said so softly she scarcely heard, "'Bye, Ab."
Her hands wanted suddenly to linger upon his dark, warm face, to stroke his moustache, touch his eyes, and move from there down his well remembered body. But he squeezed them painfully, and she swallowed and said into his eyes. " 'Bye, Jess."
Then he backed away and stood looking at her all the while he slowly buttoned up his jacket and turned the collar up around his ears.
He turned. The door opened and the snow swirled in about her feet.
And in the silence after the door closed, slicing off a quick chunk of cold, she whispered to the emptiness, " 'Bye, Jess."
When Abbie awakened the following morning and saw her haggard face in the mirror, she was relieved that David wouldn't have a chance to see her this way. They had agreed she would not go down to the store at all today, so she wouldn't see him until seven this evening, when he came by to walk her over to church for their wedding rehearsal.
Assessing herself in the mirror, she found her face a disaster and her nerves ruined. Both needed immediate help.
The best she could do for her face was to give it the astringent benefits of a freshly sliced lemon. The results were an infinite improvement over the perdition which had shown in every pore when she first woke up. She managed to dim the telltale puffiness and shadows beneath her eyes by using handfuls of snow to soothe and invigorate them. After a bath and hair wash, she began to feel even more human. The visible devastation was repaired.
But what about the invisible?
It certainly didn't help her quivering stomach at all to think about Jesse, but she couldn't help it. She paused in putting the finishing touches to her hair. How different Jesse had seemed last night.
Forget him, Abigail McKenzie!
She forced herself to think of David, of the store, the photograph, the practice tonight, the ceremony tomorrow, the reception. The honeymoon. For a moment her thoughts strayed back to Jesse, but she brought them up short.
Go through the list of filings that need doing for the reception! Get out the lace tablecloth, lay out the plates, forks, cups. Frost the tea cakes, slice the breads and set them aside. Press Mama's gown. Worry about the snow.
She glanced out the window but the blizzard had blown itself out toward dawn. Still, snow in the mountains often meant delayed trains, since not all lines had adequate snow sheds so trains were forced to wait while crews cleared the tracks after a blizzard like they'd had last night. Suppose the train was late or never came at all. The photograph was no life and death matter, she told herself one minute. Then the next, watched the clock, listening for the whistle, railing, oh, why did it have to snow!
Jesse—with snow melting off his hair, his moustache…
Forget him! Think of David. Get your clothing ready to carry to the hotel.
The 9:50 whistle! At last! That meant Damon Smith had arrived and would be setting up his photographic equipment at the hotel.
Did it mean, too, that Jesse was boarding the train to leave town?
Oh yes, yes, please be gone, Jesse.
Would David find out Jesse had been in town, even for such a short time? Did anyone see Jesse returning to the hotel at three o'clock in the morning?
Don't think about it! Pack the pearl headpiece and veil in tissue, cover the wedding dress on its hanger, get shoes ready to take. Your face looks fine, Abbie, quit looking in the mirror! Your dress is beautiful, everything will turn out fine if you simply forget Jesse DuFrayne.
With fifteen minutes to spare, Miss Abigail McKenzie stood before her umbrella stand beside the front door with its lovely oval window. She glanced outside at the windless, dazzling day, dressed as it was in white, in honor of her wedding. On the seat of the umbrella stand were her garments, stacked all neatly.
On top of the stack was a pair of delicate white satin slippers of tapering heel and pointed toe—her wedding gift from David.
In the mirror determined eyes stared back at her, chastising Abbie for her foolish, tremulous misgivings.
She watched herself draw arms into a new jade green coat with capelet and hood, purchased for her honeymoon trip. She forced herself to refrain from thinking it was Jesse's money that had bought it. She drew her hands into her muff. He'd bought it, too.
Lifting her eyes, she thought, pick up your wedding garments, Abigail McKenzie, and carry them over town and get this photograph taken and get yourself married to David Melcher and quit being a simpering schoolgirl. She thought of how long it had been since she'd checked the tautness of her chin. She need not do that anymore; she was not old. Yet neither was she young. She was in between, and it was a blessed relief not to have to worry about it anymore. David accepted middle age with total unconcern, which made her do the same. She need not fear life passing her by again. From now on there'd be David.