Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6815
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 accomplish her goal; she knows Truitt will give her whatever she wants. She spends hours at the botanical center talking to an expert and taking copious notes. In her correspondence with Ralph, Catherine explains that Tony is bitter and angry, and she asks if he still wants his son to come home. The answer is a resounding yes, with further instructions to do or give whatever it takes to bring Tony home. This, of course, is exactly what Catherine wants to hear—implicit permission to follow her own desires. She understands she is the enticement Ralph is using to lure his son home, and she does not mind.
Now free to follow her desires, Catherine walks briskly to the dingy brownstone she knows so well and rings the bell of the apartment, knowing he is on the other side, waiting for her. When the door opens she is drawn immediately into his arms, and their passion is soon consummated. Once their love making is over, Tony becomes harsh and asks why his father is not dead yet. Tony is the man Catherine has been missing and yearning for, and they have schemed together to ensure Tony’s inheritance of the Italian home and all of his mother’s expensive things. He is impatient. Catherine assures him it will happen and reminds him it takes time for arsenic to work, but they are certain not to get caught with such a slow-acting poison. Tony reminds her that all he wants is to hear about his father’s face, writhing in death. When she tells him Ralph really does want to know him and make amends, Tony gets rough with her and reminds her that this is the man who beat him and strangled his mother, his own wife. Having heard the truth from Ralph himself, Catherine knows this is a lie Tony has convinced himself of. For him, it is now a truth that is the motivation for their plan. She loves him, but she knows he is acting on a lie. They exchange a few heated words; she tells him she loves him, and he derides her for it. Tony leaves. Catherine goes to the closet and luxuriates, for just a moment, in her fine, colorful clothing and all her shoes with their shiny buckles.
After sending word to Truitt that she is making progress with Andy and assuring him she will bring his son home with her, Catherine spends nearly all her time with Tony. She is an addict and he is her drug. They spend hours together, both in his bed and at his usual haunts, including the beer hall where he works and the opium den he frequents after his shows. Most days Catherine arrives back at the hotel at dawn and sleeps until noon, when she does more reading about roses for her garden.
She spends time with old friends but is dismayed that she is unable to find the one person she really cares about, her sister Alice. She has always done her best to help Alice thrive and even now wants to take her back to Wisconsin with her, but she is nowhere to be found. When she is with Tony, he wants to hear about his father and his life in Wisconsin. He acts and talks as if he loved his mother and sister, as if the life he is now living is satisfying and makes him complete; however, Catherine knows he is still a lonely little boy whose only real emotion is anger. He eats only exotic foods as a kind of tribute to his foreign mother; he is rarely able to sleep without the help of drugs. They continue to feast on their desire as Catherine continues to give her husband hope in the letters she writes him every day. When Catherine expresses her wish to see Alice, Tony tells her he knows where she is—Wild Cat Chute—a fact that causes Catherine to weep. What he does not tell her is that when Catherine was in Wisconsin, he and Alice had a sexual encounter.
When Alice was seven and Catherine was fourteen, their father died of a broken heart and an addiction to alcohol. Six years before, their mother died, and Catherine had to stay home to take care of her younger sister. At the poorhouse, Catherine made sure Alice went to school, and she learned to read from her younger sister. Catherine did laundry or bits of sewing to earn money until a man paid her to perform a sexual act, and she knew she had found her career. After two years, Catherine had saved enough money to move them to Philadelphia. Catherine continued to learn, absorbing every scrap of information she could, though she never learned more than she needed to know. As the mistress of a married man, she was full of interesting information that served her well in social settings. Her lover kept the sisters in a fine apartment with fine things, and Catherine was content because she was providing a better life for her sister. Alice, though, hated everything to do with learning; all she wanted was pretty things. After Catherine discovered her lover and her twelve-year-old sister in bed together, she sold as many of their fine things as she could and moved them to New York. All her attempts to save Alice from a life she detested were to no avail. Alice wanted nothing more than to be a kept woman surrounded by beautiful things.
Catherine soon left for Chicago and heard nothing more about or from Alice for years, until she went to visit the World’s Exposition in St. Louis. She approached Alice and was rewarded by a hard slap across the face. She has not seen her since. Now Alice is in the worst of the worst places, the last stop for the diseased and dying, a strip of shacks near the wharfs. Catherine wants to try to save her sister now that she can; she hopes Alice can find healing in the whiteness of Wisconsin. Tony is furious that she wants to help her sister, ironically mocking her attempt to recapture a more innocent past. Finally she finds Alice, and her worst fears are realized. Her sister is sick and bitter and dying. Catherine pleads with her to come with her, but Alice knows she is bad and cannot be made good. Before she falls asleep in her crude shack, Alice thanks Catherine for being good and for trying to make things better for her. Catherine has a vision of a departing angel while she holds her sleeping sister and knows Alice is lost.
After leaving her all the money she has, Catherine spends the next two days in her hotel room, weeping for her lost and dying sister. She knows now she cannot kill Ralph, and she asks him to send the railroad car for her. Her letter is vague about whether Andy will be joining her. When Catherine goes to see Tony one last time, he is derisive but also drawn to her. He hates her as much as he needs her. She begs him, on her knees, to release her from her promise to kill his father. Tony is intractable and tells her he will write one letter and destroy all she has. Catherine and her caged bird leave St. Louis, knowing Tony has won.
Wisconsin, Winter Into Spring 1908
Ralph has been lonely, and the sight of her, even without his son, is balm for his aching soul. At dinner Catherine tells him that Tony, Andy, is lost to him. The only thing Ralph still wants after twenty years is his son; knowing he is lost is a devastating blow. He tells her they will move to the new house and have children and wait. Tony is not a good man, full of selfishness and greed and passions, but Ralph hopes he will come when he needs what Ralph has—money. He hopes his careless son will come home, but he fears it will not happen; he knows his wife will grow to pity him and he knows all is lost.
After a night of passion, Ralph drinks the cool water he always has on his nightstand. From the first sip, he smells and then tastes the poison. He drinks the entire glass because he “just doesn’t care anymore.” The smell and taste of arsenic is now omnipresent: on his clothes, in his food, on his hairbrush. At first it is invigorating and makes him feel youthful and vibrant. He wishes he could tell his wife he wants to die but is afraid of death; he wishes he could tell her everything will be hers when he is gone. But he cannot speak of these things. He is her willing accomplice in this shocking scheme. After installing electricity in the villa as a wedding gift and deeding the farmhouse to the Larsons, the Truitts move into the villa. They entertain and Catherine regales him with her plans to restore the gardens. Ralph silently wonders if he will live to see her creation.
One day, Ralph’s bookkeeper suddenly goes insane and murders his wife. Ralph knows it is because, like all the others, he lost his mind wanting things he cannot have. Ralph understands. He has low expectations because he knows that what he now has is what is left of everything he has broken in his life. He tried to make his wife into something she was not, and he drove her away. His son was innocent of his mother’s infidelity, but he drove Andy away as well because he was not enough. His new wife turned out to be the thing he had come to expect in his life—poison. When she is busy, he looks for the poison in her belongings but cannot find it. He would not have confronted her if he had. Mr. Larson finds Catherine’s jewelry, dropped on that harrowing first carriage ride and lost under the winter snow, and returns it to her. It is nothing to her any more.
A woman in town takes strychnine and poisons herself; a father drowns his daughter in a well. Ralph weeps because every crime and every death is, to him, Antonio’s death. He has night terrors and sweats so much Catherine has to change the sheets one night; as she does, Ralph tells her it is okay and that he forgives her. When the end comes he wants her to finish it quickly; she is his angel of death and he loves her for it. He finally knows how his death will happen and is content. Catherine is stricken and admits nothing but tells him, for the first time, that she loves him. Mr. Larson burns his hand and cuts it off with an axe; he enters a mental ward (paid for by Truitt) and never is spoken of again. A man dies after eating an entire dictionary. A woman who unexpectedly loves a man is slowly poisoning that man, who loves her back. “Such things happen.” If Catherine does not kill the man she loves, the man who has represented love to her for years will send a letter and the man she loves now will be destroyed. She stops the poisoning for a week but resumes because she is trapped. Ralph is suffering physically now, but he does not speak of her perfidy, nor does he complain: “She was the final knife in his heart. He opened his shirt to her with gladness.”
Mrs. Larson is suspicious and watches Catherine’s every move. Ralph is tortured by pain and Catherine is the only one who can and does soothe him. He knows she is tortured by this ordeal as well, but he does not understand why; he has no regrets but she is grieving. Ralph tries to talk to her of business, but she does not listen. They attend church services, and though it is torture for his body it does something for his soul. Mrs. Larson insists they call a doctor, who says it is cancer and nothing can be done. The housekeeper, who shed no tears at all over her husband’s tragic incident, is often in tears of sorrow and rage over what is happening to her employer. The servant knows Catherine is to blame; Ralph knows his own dissipated youth is killing him. He forgets things, has chills and fevers, suffers awful nightmares, has blisters all over his body, and is unable to feed himself, yet still he does not blame Catherine. He moves back into the farmhouse with Mrs. Larson because the other house haunts him. His wife walks from the enormous villa and waits outside his door all night, ready to minister to him when he wakes each morning.
Finally Catherine knows she cannot finish what she started and tells him she wants him to live. She promises Antonio will come and, until then, asks him to live for her. Her telegram to Tony simply tells him to come at once. Catherine nurses her husband with even greater intensity, willing him back to health with her tireless efforts. She burns or destroys everything that could have been tainted with the poison and gets rid of the remaining poison in a place where it will harm neither human nor animal. She enlists Mrs. Larson’s help. They seek the wisdom of old people in town regarding herbs for healing; Catherine goes to Chicago to visit a friend who took her to a Chinaman who gave her opium to help the healing process. Catherine is tired and does not eat much. Antonio and Ralph haunt her dreams. When she wakes up, she knows she is pregnant. The medicine she brings Ralph is working. He will never be young again, but he will live. The nightmares subside and become dreams; his blisters are beginning to heal. She wants to tell him about the baby she is reasonably certain is his, but she does not want to tell him while he is ill. She is finally able to grieve for all she has lost, and her ministrations to Ralph help heal her. They are suited; she will never be whole just as he will never be young. Truitt improves enough to dress himself, eat on his own, walk without help, and go back to work to repair his business.
One evening at dinner there is a knock at the door of the villa; when Ralph opens the door he can barely see who is standing there in the dark. A voice says he is Tony Moretti, his son, though both know that is not technically true. Ralph steps into the dark to embrace him. Tony arrived with all his belongings but penniless. He makes a luxurious suite for himself out of his mother’s old room and others; Ralph buys him a piano for his private apartment. At the other end of the house, Catherine and Ralph are settled in like a married couple in love.
When Catherine asks Ralph, one night, how Emilia died, he tells her he killed her. Catherine does not believe it, but he explains. Emilia went to St. Louis with her lover, Moretti, who left her soon after for a richer woman. Her life was a downward spiral, ending in disease and humiliation, but Ralph always made sure she had money. After she got sick, he took Antonio to see her but it was so bad he could not allow the son to see his mother in her squalor and disease. She told Ralph he was a cuckold and a fool, mocking him as she always did. Something in Ralph snapped, and he left her destitute and alone. She died a miserable pauper’s death and he is not sorry, nor will he speak of it again. Catherine knows Tony lied to her so she would execute his plan for revenge; however, she now has a plan of her own.
Antonio has nothing but disdain for Truitt and shows it at every turn with his snide comments and disdainful behavior. He is bored and has run out of drugs; he has turned to Ralph’s wine cellar full of expensive vintages to get drunk every night. He buys outrageously expensive items and his father does not complain. Ralph tries to talk to him of business but Antonio has no interest; it is reminiscent of Ralph and his father when Ralph was young. Antonio is insulting in every way and Ralph endures it in hopes of garnering his son’s forgiveness—a forgiveness that will never be given.
Antonio takes advantage of Ralph’s going to work and accuses Catherine of breaking faith with him by not killing his father. She is not repentant, for she has decided that her husband is enough; she no longer desires the insolent Antonio. Although he still threatens to tell Ralph what he knows, Antonio is silent. Catherine tries to warn her husband that Antonio is going to bring trouble into their home, but Ralph sees himself in the young man’s attitudes and behaviors and continues to try to make a connection with him. Antonio travels to Chicago for opium and other diversions and comes home with a girl. He also brings more arsenic.
Ralph continues to accept his son in all circumstances. He says nothing when he moves the girl in or when Antonio grows bored with her and ships her back to Chicago. Ralph grows his business and finds making money an enjoyable endeavor. Catherine continues to plan and cultivate her garden; she hopes the child she is growing will be loved by its father. Ralph teaches Antonio to drive, giving him a new freedom and new ways to pursue his outrageous lifestyle. He is openly having an affair with a young widow. When Ralph tells his son that perhaps he should go to Europe, where such women understand the rules of the game he is playing, Antonio refuses. He is no longer young enough to see such a move as an adventure; instead it would be an intimidating and even frightening experience. But staying in Wisconsin is frustrating him, and his rage is building. After Violet, his widowed mistress, comes to dinner one night, Antonio decides she is too boring for him and sends a letter telling her he will no longer see her. The next day, after nursing her baby, she hangs herself. The Truitts go to the meager funeral; Antonio stays home and plays the piano. He is “breaking his father’s soul, little by little.” The balance between greed and hatred is tenuous for Antonio, and something will soon disturb the tenuous peace of their home.
As spring appears, the two men occasionally take a drive and talk. Ralph apologizes and hopes Antonio understands his grief and shame over how he treated an innocent boy. It is never enough, and Antonio simply spews more hate. At night, alone, Antonio gets drunk in his old playroom and cries for what has been lost. Truitt can give him many things, but he cannot give him back the time he lost, time that could have been spent without pain and misery and anger. He wants to die and he wants Catherine, the woman who has become someone other than the passionate woman he once so easily manipulated both in and out of his bed. She keeps her distance and speaks to him as a mother might speak to a troubled teenager. Antonio cannot escape his yearning for her.
Antonio has a simple conversation with Catherine in the conservatory, and she tells him he must quit feeling sorry for himself and move forward with his life; he has the resources and ability to go anywhere and do anything. He leaves in anger but returns and rapes her. She stabs him twice with her sewing scissors, and then Ralph is in the doorway. He immediately sees what has happened and his rage is visible. Antonio admits he raped her and tells his father he has been with Catherine thousands of times, and Ralph knows he is going to have to kill his son. The father begins beating his bleeding son. When he escapes, Antonio grabs a poker from the fireplace and smashes his father in the face before running out of the house and into the garden. When Catherine tries to check Ralph’s injury, she sees in his eyes that this battle is not over. Ralph continues to beat his son with all the old anger; Antonio continues to fight back against his father but knows he deserves what he is getting. Antonio steps onto a frozen pond and faces his father. Suddenly he is finished fighting back. Ralph, too, stops and looks at his son. His anger is spent. Though he cannot forgive, he does not want this story to end like so many other tragic tales. The ice cracks and Antonio goes under the water and ice. Ralph howls in grief and does what he can to rescue his son, but Antonio is gone.
Ralph is inconsolable, and Catherine tries to remove Antonio’s things from the house and erase the memories. It is futile, and she weeps for all that has been lost. Three people attend the funeral: Ralph, Catherine, and Mrs. Larson. Ralph is still mourning in silence, and Catherine has moved to another room, wondering how things have gone so wrong. She is sure her husband will send her away, and she is afraid of ending up like Alice or Emilia, with nothing and with no one to mourn her. He has been hurt again by something that matters, and even the presence of a child is unlikely to persuade him to keep her with him. She walks in the garden she created, a garden that will one day be lush and beautiful and thriving. Ralph says her name quietly behind her, and she turns to see him, still in his mourning clothes. He tells her he already knew what Antonio told him. The detectives in St. Louis sent him a letter, which he promptly burned. He knew everything before she ever came back. She tells him they are going to have a child, and he holds out his hand and invites her into their house.
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