On a Saturday afternoon, Margaret Fleming gazes out at the autumn rains stripping leaves from the trees, as she has every fall for the past twenty years but with quite different feelings. Before she saw them as symbols of loss; now she sees them sweeping away all her illusions. On the hearth of the library study, her husband George’s room, lies the fallen letter that has caused this change. It has announced the death of her marriage. Gazing at herself in the mirror, she wonders how he, one year older, could begin a new love, for her an act of desecration. Hearing his step, she retrieves the letter, hiding it in the front of her dress.
They exchange trivial conversation. Looking at him, vital and healthy as always, she is surprised to discover signs of slackness about his mouth that she had not noticed before. She wonders why these appeared only after he loved another, and suspects she does not really know him even after twenty years. However, until now she had believed her marriage nearly perfect. He admires her colorful flower arrangements; she remembers that she has always been pale and muses on how her surface life can look unchanged while she has been struck to the roots of her being. Does Rose Morrison, George’s young lover, have the color she lacks?
Before he leaves for business, he asks if she will correct the galleys of a history of law he has been writing. She realizes he could not have done it without her; she has been necessary to his serious life. She agrees, as always. He also asks her to do some routine domestic tasks for him. She wonders whether Rose has done any of these things.
She paces, hearing the rain and falling leaves, and resolves never to give him up. The butler announces Dorothy Chambers, her oldest friend and principal support, yet Margaret is reluctant to see her, discovering that suffering leads to deception and fearing that Dorothy will detect the difference in her.
Dorothy asks Margaret’s help in a charity drive, then mentions that two of their separated acquaintances have reconciled. Margaret is shocked out of her numbness; she cannot understand how the woman agreed because he had claimed to love the other woman. Dorothy cynically dismisses the quality of man’s love and states that the woman enjoys the act of forgiveness because of her “spiritual vanity.” To her, Margaret, though lovely, knows nothing of life. When Margaret retorts that Dorothy knows little of love, the latter asks whether she means man’s love or woman’s—for women love ideally, men only sensually. When Margaret still cannot understand why a man would want to live with a woman he has said he does not love, Dorothy points out that marriage involves more than love; it also involves convenience. Margaret bursts out that the woman then ought to give up the man; Dorothy asks her whether she would in a similar situation.
Margaret hesitates, then declares that she would. In making that decision, she experiences a peace beyond pain, grief, and bitterness. Dorothy tells her that she is a fool; George would be a comfort and a source of security even if love were over. Then she leaves.
Margaret takes a moment to plan her actions, then carries out the routine duties George had requested. Then, disdaining to take the car provided by George, she sets out to ride the trolley to the suburban address given in the letter—a villa George has acquired in an unfashionable suburb. Out in the rain, she is overwhelmed with melancholy, feeling utterly deserted; in the streetcar, immersed in isolation, she finds Dorothy’s phrase “spiritual vanity” echoing in her ears. Details from the entire twenty-year marriage drift through her mind like dead leaves.
From the suburban station she walks to the villa through piles of sodden leaves that look like graves. The villa itself is nondescript, neglected. A maid answers the bell, informing Margaret that her mistress is out; when Margaret announces that she will wait, she is led to a recently...
(The entire section is 2,060 words.)