Wisconsin, Fall 1907
Ralph Truitt stands alone at the train station, waiting. He is alone, as always, and the 4:00 train is late. After he lost his wife and children, his hopes and dreams twenty years ago, only his rigid expectations sustained and continue to sustain him. It is October 17. People and activity surround him, but he is insulated from them. Ralph Truitt is fifty-four years old, and almost everyone in town works for him in one way or another, which is the reason for their deference. He knows they pity him, just as he pities himself. He has never recovered from his tragic losses and spends his life longing for what he no longer has.
Today they all know what he is waiting for, and he hates that they know and are watching. He has become bitter and angry, but today he has some hope in his desolation. In his hand are the letter and the photograph of the woman who will soon be his wife. He has not met her, but this much younger woman is coming to be his bride. Catherine Land, according to the letter, was once a missionary and now resides in a Christian boarding house in Chicago. She has seen much suffering in the world and now only wants a home and someone with whom to share it.
Catherine Land is also disillusioned with her life and ponders her future as she makes her way by train to her future husband. Her life in Virginia had a good beginning. After her mother died, though, she had “bitten and bludgeoned her way through life,” and now she is afraid she will die without love or money. Unlike Ralph’s resentment and anger, her bitterness is not evident on her face.
In the comfort of her luxury train compartment, she anticipates the end of six months worth of scheming. She likes beginnings. They are generally sweet and pleasant, unlike endings, which are almost always bitter and unpleasant. It is the middle that has her worried, for it is in the middle that plans can go wrong with even the tiniest misstep. Ralph Truitt posted an ad for a “reliable wife,” and she is on her way to meet him. First, she must create the woman he expects to marry. She undresses and throws her silk garments out the train window; she replaces them with a homely dress she made herself, as her mother once taught her. Two others just like it are packed in her shabby suitcase, along with a precious blue bottle with a Chinese label. She removes her expensive jewelry and sews it into the hem of her dress. It is her insurance in case her plan does not work. She does not need to rehearse the life she has created for him, the stories and the memories and the songs that have made her who he expects her to be. She puts on her missionary cape and demurely walks off the train to meet her future husband.
Catherine is afraid she will not know him, but when she sees the despair on his face, his loneliness in the midst of the crowd, she knows it is him: “He looked so rich and so alone.” For a moment she is afraid. She had not planned what she would say to him; she only knows she must endure until spring. Ralph is angry when he sees she is not the plain girl from the picture he grasps so tightly. When she tries to explain, he nearly drags her to his carriage to escape the gawking and whispering around them. She explains he would not have accepted her pretty face, and she is right.
He tells her he has the only car in town but it does not do well in snow, and he says people here go insane and do outrageous things in the winter. Their ride is silent and uncomfortable. He is thinking of what people will say when he sends this pretty girl back to Chicago; she is thinking of the contrast between this rustic wilderness on a cold, snowy night and her life as a beer-hall girl in the heart of a lively city.
Suddenly a deer darts across the road, and the horses react. Ralph is thrown from the carriage and Catherine is finally able to control the crazed animals, though her hem rips and her jewelry is lost. When she finally gets back to him, he is bleeding from a gash on his head. He does not want her help, but he is too weak to protest. The horses take them home. Her first look at the house is a surprise to her. She had expected it to be as lonely and desperate as its owner; however, it is neat and trim and full of light. When they arrive, Catherine calls for help. Mr. and Mrs. Larson, who have been waiting, run to the carriage and immediately blame her for Ralph’s injury and the broken leg on one of the horses. Despite that, they manage to get the man inside and assess his condition. He is bleeding profusely and needs a doctor, but that is not an option for many reasons. Catherine asks them to get her suitcase, and she retrieves her sewing kit. Although she has no experience with such things, she understands the gash, deep enough that she can see the exposed bone, must be closed to stop the bleeding. It is too soon for him to die. Catherine stitches the gash together, and the Larsons take Ralph upstairs to change clothes and try to stay awake for as long as possible.
When Catherine finally has time to look around, she sees the house is furnished in a unique blend of both the fine and the mundane. She is surprised and impressed by what she sees. Mrs. Larson serves Catherine a delicious dinner on fine china and silverware from Tiffany’s, then takes her to her room. The room is beautiful, and the indoor bathroom (the first in the county) is down the hall. As she takes off her bloodied dress, Catherine prepares for bed and is close to tears. She realizes she is both “desperate and hopeful,” knowing the simple things she wants out of life will not be hers and sad that she is an actress playing this role.
Mrs. Larson knocks on the door and tells her Truitt has a fever. Through the days of Ralph’s fever, the two women tirelessly care for him; at least one of them is at his side at all times. In his feverish state, Ralph feels them touch him and is amazed he can still feel. He recalls his mother, a religious fanatic who saw him as a wicked sinner like his father. She was willing to hurt him to prove a point, and he hated her for most of his life because he knew she was right about him. From the age of seven or eight until after college, Ralph was constantly tormented by his lusts and his fear that expressing them would hurt other people. First in college and then for a year in Europe financed by his father, he satiated himself on whores and drugs and decadent living, believing he could be no better—until he saw Emilia. He was in love. Immediately he transformed into a young man worthy of such a lovely young Italian girl. Eventually he had to ask his father for a huge amount of money as a dowry, and his father agreed as long as he would finally come home and take over the family business. The wedding preparations were extensive; when Ralph got a telegram telling him his father was sick, he could not leave. A second telegram said his father was dying, but still he could not go. A final telegram announcing his father’s death finally compelled Ralph to hurry the wedding and take his bride home. Emilia was pregnant with their daughter before they arrived home, and they had some happy years together, but when she died his self-loathing began again. Now, as he is fighting his fever and the women are touching him as they try to heal him, he is both tormented and soothed.
When she is not tending to Ralph, Catherine is also tormented. She has taken stock of the fine furnishings and is already looking ahead to the time when it will all be hers. Her memories of the past are haunting her; she recalls the thrill of beginnings that turned into meaningless sex and ended abruptly. She yearns for a drink or some opium or a cigarette, but she knows she must keep her mind clear to carry out her plan. In every town she wandered through in her life, she would spend time in the library, studying faraway places and recipes for fine foods—and poisons. Here in this house she does not know where to sit or stand. After four days, Ralph’s fever breaks. He will live. Catherine spends the night standing in her room, wearing one of her ordinary dresses, knowing tomorrow will be a fresh start.
At the piano, Catherine plays a Chopin selection she learned as a girl, unaware that Truitt is standing behind her. He looks ill, but he is at least up and walking. After he sits down, she tells him elaborate lies of her life as a missionary’s daughter. Ralph’s only response is to say they will marry if she is still willing. Then he tells her his life story, without emotion, excuse, or embellishment. He tells her about the mother who thought he was so unclean she refused to touch him, even as a baby, and who is now dead. He tells her about his profligate life both in Chicago and abroad, without omitting any of the sordid details. He tells her about the wife he loved and tried to make happy by building an Italian villa nearby and filling it with priceless treasures from around the world—only to have her begin a long-term affair with an Italian piano instructor. When he discovered the truth, Ralph beat both of them and sent them away, then he locked up the house forever. He tells her about the daughter, Francesca, who contracted scarlet fever and was never “right” again until she died years later, untouched by her mother after the fever changed her. He tells her about the son, Antonio (called Andy by his mother), who was not really his and whom he mistreated because he was a constant reminder of his mother. Andy eventually ran away but finally has been found in St. Louis by detectives Ralph hired. He tells her about Mrs. Larson, who was a young girl in service to his wife. She is one of the only things he brought with him from the house he now hates—her and just a few of the fine things to which he had somehow become accustomed (silverware, a couch, some lamps).
Catherine does not move at all during the narration; she appears neither shocked nor sympathetic. He tells her again they will marry, and he is hoping Andy will come home to his own house, to the only father he knows, and to a new mother. Catherine tells him she does not love him, she cannot love him, and he remains unmoved. When she asks how he plans to get his son to come home, he tells her she will go to St. Louis and get him. Ralph is not fooled; he knows she is not what she appears to be, but it does not bother him. He wishes he could tell her his overwhelming grief has burned through him and consumed his sins, that he desires her and wants to give her pleasure. Instead, he says nothing and takes care not to touch her or even lean into her: “He wanted everything. He did nothing.”
They are going to be married on Thanksgiving Day; Catherine, who has asked for nothing, now asks for material (with which to make a wedding dress) and an unobtrusive ring. Ralph gladly accedes to her wishes. Though she does not ask, he gives her things. Hothouse roses, bonnets, chocolates, earrings, novels, a bird. He still knows how to choose fine things, to recognize taste and class and elegance. He does not allow her to leave his house because of the weather and the gossip that would no doubt ensue. This is his way of touching her. At night he dreams of her and wonders if she is thinking of him. She is not. Catherine dreams of smoking cigarettes and an unfaithful lover far away.
One day Ralph takes her to the other house. It is a glittering palace in the winter wilderness, full of treasures from around the world. Catherine joins Mrs. Larson whenever she goes to clean it. While she is there, she tries on Emilia’s dresses and jewels, plays the piano, admires the furnishings, and wanders through the secret garden. Even then, her rage does not diminish, and she thinks of the blue bottle she has hidden in her suitcase and the plan she is determined to execute:
What she wanted, of course, was a quick marriage to Ralph Truitt, followed by his painless demise.
She wants love and money, and Truitt will ensure she gets them. They are married in a quiet, private ceremony at the house, and that night Ralph and Catherine consummate their marriage. She knows he loves her (or is at least obsessed by her) and has the passing thought that her husband may actually be the way she can achieve both her goals. When she walks through town, she looks for the people she has read about in the papers, those who have gone mad with winter and their religion, but she does not find them. At home, she asks for shaded glasses because the light hurts her eyes and gives her headaches. On New Year’s Day, Catherine gets on a train bound for St. Louis.
St. Louis, Winter 1908
As she steps off the train, Catherine realizes how much she has missed the energy and anonymity of the city. She checks into her hotel room, which is suitable but not extravagant—in keeping with the persona she is maintaining. With a letter of credit for the bank, she gets enough money to buy what she needs without arousing any suspicions. Her purchases are expensive but simple: several city dresses, a few elegant and expensive hats, a new coat, some white gloves. All of them are too fine for her country life but are perfectly acceptable here. Here she is not tempted to drink beer, smoke cigarettes, or have anonymous sex, though she could do any of them in this throbbing city. Catherine watches the rich, fashionable women at tea, emulating their manners as well as their clothes. She eats fine meals, visits the opera, and spends hours at the library, reading classical literature as well as volumes about gardening. The botanical books captivate her, and she decides to renovate the garden at the Italian house.
Now when Catherine thinks about her plan, she feels as if she is “working a scheme the rules of which no longer seem clear to her.” The Pinkerton detectives her husband hired to find Andy come to see her and give her the details about the man who calls himself Tony Moretti, son of a famous Italian pianist named Moretti. The details they relate are sordid, and the men are embarrassed to tell her some of his habits. They consider him to be “as worthless as a puppet” and “an exotic toy.” He has moved across the country, a man of many desires but not much talent; in short, he is not commendable in any way. The detectives are convinced he is Truitt’s illegitimate son and not worth spending any more time and effort on by them or Ralph; however, Catherine tells them it is not their decision to make and wants to observe Tony without his knowing it. Tomorrow night they will take her to a restaurant he frequents before each night’s debauchery. In the waiting time, Catherine tries to refocus her plan. Using the little blue bottle will be easy, but not with the watchful eyes of a son on her. This evening she is torn between her desire for Tony to stay where he is and her desire for Ralph to be restored to his son.
They settle at the restaurant, and Catherine knows him immediately when he walks into the room. He is dark and elegant and seemingly oblivious to the female stares around him. His clothes are immaculate, and he pretentiously swings his walking stick as he enters the room. He clearly is a regular here; the waiter brings him three dozen oysters and champagne before he is even seated. After he has finished, the waiter whispers in his ear and he makes his way to the piano. He plays a popular song languidly and mournfully. It is obviously designed to move his female audience. Unaccountably, he stops at Catherine’s table and speaks to her. She is moved by the encounter; in fact, her veins are flowing with lust for her new husband’s illegitimate son.
Although the detectives try to dissuade her, Catherine determines to meet with him. His apartment is decorated with fine French and Italian things, and he answers the door in nothing but a silk robe. Catherine is attracted to the raw sexuality he exudes. The meeting starts well but grows uglier. When the detectives tell him what they know, Tony recites his well-rehearsed life story: home, parents, family, musical training. When the men persist and call him Anthony Truitt from Wisconsin, he gets irate. Catherine explains that Ralph knows he was a terrible father and now wants to make up for his bad behavior. Tony will have none of it and insists they leave, which they do.
On the way back to the hotel, Catherine buys a bird and an elaborate cage. The next day she writes her husband and tells him what she has been doing with her time and about her meeting with Tony. She explains her plans to revive the garden at the villa and asks permission to purchase seeds and plants she will need to...
(The entire section is 6815 words.)