Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222
The Forrester home at Sweet Water is a stopping-off place for railroad magnates riding through the prairie states along the Burlington line. Old Captain Forrester likes to drive his guests from the train station and watch them as they approach his estate. He enjoys their praise of his stock farm...
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The Forrester home at Sweet Water is a stopping-off place for railroad magnates riding through the prairie states along the Burlington line. Old Captain Forrester likes to drive his guests from the train station and watch them as they approach his estate. He enjoys their praise of his stock farm and their delight when his charming wife meets them at the front door. Everyone from railroad presidents to the village butcher boy and the kitchen maids likes Mrs. Forrester; her manner is always one of friendliness and respect.
Niel Herbert’s acquaintance with Mrs. Forrester began when he was twelve years old, when he fell from a tree while playing with some village boys on the Captain’s property, and Mrs. Forrester summoned a doctor. The boy who caused Niel’s fall was Ivy Peters. Ivy had winged a woodpecker and then had slit its eyes. The bird had fumbled back into its hole, and Niel was trying to reach the creature to put it out of its misery when he lost his balance and fell. He did not know it at the time, but Mrs. Forrester had already singled him out from the others because he was Judge Pommeroy’s nephew. After his recovery, Niel began to be invited to the Forrester home often with his uncle.
Some years later, during a period of hard times, Niel’s father goes out of business and leaves Sweet Water. Niel stays on to read law in his uncle’s office. A few days before Christmas, Mrs. Forrester invites Niel to her home to help entertain Constance Ogden, the daughter of one of the Captain’s friends, who is spending the holidays with the Forresters. Also included in the party is Frank Ellinger, a bachelor of forty. The dinner is a festive one. Niel decides that Constance is neither pretty nor pleasant; it is evident that she has designs on Frank Ellinger.
The following day, Niel is asked to stay with Constance during the afternoon while Mrs. Forrester and Frank take the small cutter and go out to collect cedar for the Christmas decorations. The Blum boy, out hunting, sees Mrs. Forrester and Frank after he comes upon the deserted cutter beside a thicket, but he does not give away their secret. The doings of the rich are not his concern, and Mrs. Forrester has been kind to him on many occasions.
During that winter, Judge Pommeroy and his nephew often play cards with the Forresters. One night, during a snowstorm, Mrs. Forrester reveals to Niel how much she misses the excitement and glamour of former winters she spent at fashionable resorts. She mocks the life of quiet domesticity that she and the Captain are living.
In the spring, the Captain goes to Denver on business, and while he is gone, Frank Ellinger arrives at the Forrester home for a visit. One morning, Niel cuts a bouquet of wild roses to leave outside the windows of Mrs. Forrester’s bedroom. As he is leaving the bouquet, he suddenly hears from the bedroom the voices of Mrs. Forrester and Frank Ellinger. Thus the first illusion of his life is shattered by a man’s yawn and a woman’s laugh.
When the Captain comes home from Denver, he announces that he is a poor man. Having satisfied his creditors, he now has only his pension from his service in the Civil War and the income from his farm. Shortly afterward, the Captain has a stroke. Niel continues to visit the Captain and his wife. He realizes that Mrs. Forrester is facing her new life with terror, which she tries to hide for her sick husband’s sake.
Niel has decided to become an architect, and he leaves Sweet Water to spend two years at school in the East. When he returns, he learns that the shrewd and grasping Ivy Peters has become an important person in the town. Niel despises Peters, and he is disappointed to learn that Peters, now the Captain’s tenant, has drained the marsh where the boys had gone fishing years before. The Captain himself has become wasted and old; he spends most of his time sitting in his garden, staring at a strange sundial he has made. Niel learns that Mrs. Forrester, who seems little older, is still writing to Frank Ellinger. He observes, too, that Mrs. Forrester treats Peters with easy familiarity, and he wonders how she can be on friendly terms with the pushy young lawyer.
That summer, a storm floods the fields along the creek. Niel goes to Judge Pommeroy’s office to read, and he thinks of an item he saw in the Denver paper earlier in the day: Frank Ellinger has finally married Constance Ogden. Close to midnight, Mrs. Forrester appears at the office; she is drenched to the skin. At her demand, Niel uses the judge’s telephone to reach Ellinger in Colorado Springs. Mrs. Forrester takes the phone and begins talking politely, as though complimenting Ellinger on his marriage. Then she becomes hysterical. When she begins to scream reproaches, Niel cuts the telephone wire. Mrs. Forrester recovers from her collapse, but the gossipy town telephone operator pieces together a village scandal from what she has overheard.
Captain Forrester dies in December. None of his wealthy friends attends the funeral, but old settlers and former employees come to do honor to the railroad pioneer who had been one of the heroes of the early West.
One day, Mr. Ogden, Constance’s father, stops in Sweet Water. He suggests that Judge Pommeroy should send a claim to Washington, D.C., to have Mrs. Forrester’s widow’s pension increased. Niel is forced to explain to the men that Mrs. Forrester has turned her affairs over to Ivy Peters.
After her husband’s death, Mrs. Forrester begins to entertain Peters and other young men of the village. At her urging, Niel attends one of her parties, but he is disgusted with the cheap manners of both host and guests. He cannot bear to see the old Captain’s home thus abused.
Niel feels that an era is ending. The great old people who built the railroads and towns, such as Judge Pommeroy, Captain Forrester, and their friends, are passing. The old men of gallant manners and their lovely ladies are gone forever. In their place is a new type of man, the shrewd opportunist, like Ivy Peters. On the day Niel sees Peters putting his arms around Mrs. Forrester, he decides to leave Sweet Water.
After he leaves the town, however, as long as his uncle lives, he has news of Mrs. Forrester. The judge tells Niel in a letter that she is sadly broken. Then his uncle dies, and Niel hears no more of Mrs. Forrester for many years. A long time afterward, a mutual friend tells him what had happened to his lost lady. She had gone to California. Later, she had married a rich Englishman and had traveled with him to South America. She had dyed her hair and had dressed expensively in an effort to keep her youth. Finally, Niel receives a letter from Mrs. Forrester’s English husband. It encloses money for the continued care of Captain Forrester’s grave, sent as a memorial to his late wife, Marian Forrester Collins.