Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
Sarah Wilson has spent her life in Kinley, a rural community in that area north of Raleigh, North Carolina, and south of Richmond, Virginia. She has left the area only for the four years she spent in college preparing to become a teacher. When she finished her training, she had no real reason to return to Kinley. Both her parents were dead, and she was their only child. She decided to take the best offer when she entered the job market, but instead took the first offer. It came from Nathan Wilson, who had been principal for three years of the school in Ogburn, the next small town from Kinley. She married him that June before she began her first and only teaching job.
As the story opens, Sarah is in an open field at night beside the railroad tracks. She sits in her car, and at eight o’clock, she flashes the lights. Someone comes running down the embankment, through the high grasses, to her car. It is Ella Scott, her former student, now an eighteen-year-old woman, who thinks that Nathan is in the car. Sarah has come because when Nathan came home drunk, she found an unsigned note in his pocket, arranging the meeting.
When she shows Ella the note, she comments that Ella’s handwriting has improved. The meeting between them is remarkably calm. Ella is properly respectful of Sarah, and she is totally candid in telling her about the relationship between herself and Nathan. Sarah, accustomed to hurt and disappointment, is not going to allow her emotions to control this tense situation.
It is hot, and she suggests to Ella that they will be more comfortable if they drive around and talk. Ella gets into the car, and as they drive the story of her meetings with Nathan, which now have been going on for eight months, unfolds, as does the story of Sarah’s childhood and eventual marriage to Nathan.
Sarah drives toward the railroad station, which at this time of night should be closed, because the last train of the day has left. Mr. Whitlow, the stationmaster, is just coming out of the station when they arrive, and he talks with them, revealing elements of Sarah’s background. He has known her most of her life.
When they leave the station, Sarah drives down the Ogburn road, past Holt Ferguson’s land, which runs on for a quarter mile. She reveals to Ella that this land had once belonged to her grandfather. It passed on to her father, whose marriage house, the house in which Sarah was brought up, was built on it. She tells of how, being an only child, she kept begging her parents for brothers, for company. Her mother always responded, “Sarah, I thought we were happy. Why aren’t you satisfied?” When Sarah was twelve, her mother had another child. It was born dead, and four months later, never having recovered from childbirth, her mother died at her twelve-year-old daughter’s feet.
Sarah and her father went on living quite happily in the house until her father had a stroke when the girl was fifteen. At that point, Holt Ferguson’s wife, Aunt Alice, who was the father’s half sister, got Holt to move their whole family into the house with Sarah and her father. Their children were boys, and although Sarah had always wanted a brother, she regarded these children as intruders. Aunt Alice had always had designs on this property that her stepfather had owned.
When Sarah’s father died two years later, the girl assumed that the property would be hers. She had always dreamed that one day she would own it. Eventually, however, it was revealed to her that Holt had bought the whole property from Sarah’s father for enough money to send Sarah to college.
Sarah goes on to say that she and Nathan, who had spent his life until he came to Ogburn running away from himself, had been unable to have children. She tells Ella that the reason they are childless is that Nathan is sterile. She then begs Ella to give up Nathan.
Ella then reveals that she has been planning to give up Nathan, but she needs to see him one more time. Sarah discourages this final meeting, telling Ella that she will tell Nathan anything she wants conveyed to him. Finally, Ella reveals that she had sent Nathan the note and had tried to see him that night to tell him that she had taken the bus to Raleigh that week and “ditched a baby in a nigger kitchen for two hundred dollars,” just as she had promised Nathan she would. She said she would pay her half of the two hundred dollars as soon as she could.