The Woman Who Tried to Be Good by Edna Ferber
Before she tried to be a good woman she had been a very bad
woman—so bad that she could trail her wonderful apparel up and down
Main Street, from the Elm Tree Bakery to the railroad tracks, without
once having a man doff his hat to her or a woman bow. You passed her on
the street with a surreptitious glance, though she was well worth
looking at—in her furs and laces and plumes. She had the only
full-length sealskin coat in our town, and Ganz' shoe store sent to
Chicago for her shoes. Hers were the miraculously small feet you
frequently see in stout women.
Usually she walked alone; but on rare occasions, especially round
Christmas time, she might have been seen accompanied by some silent,
dull-eyed, stupid-looking girl, who would follow her dumbly in and out
of stores, stopping now and then to admire a cheap comb or a chain set
with flashy imitation stones—or, queerly enough, a doll with yellow
hair and blue eyes and very pink cheeks. But, alone or in company, her
appearance in the stores of our town was the signal for a sudden jump
in the cost of living. The storekeepers mulcted her; and she knew it
and paid in silence, for she was of the class that has no redress. She
owned the House With the Closed Shutters, near the freight depot—did
Blanche Devine. And beneath her silks and laces and furs there was a
scarlet letter on her breast.
In a larger town than ours she would have passed unnoticed. She did
not look like a bad woman. Of course she used too much perfumed white
powder, and as she passed you caught the oversweet breath of a certain
heavy scent. Then, too, her diamond eardrops would have made any
woman's features look hard; but her plump face, in spite of its
heaviness, wore an expression of good-humoured intelligence, and her
eyeglasses gave her somehow a look of respectability. We do not
associate vice with eyeglasses. So in a large city she would have
passed for a well-dressed prosperous, comfortable wife and mother, who
was in danger of losing her figure from an overabundance of good
living; but with us she was a town character, like Old Man Givins, the
drunkard, or the weak-minded Binns girl. When she passed the drug-store
corner there would be a sniggering among the vacant-eyed loafers idling
there, and they would leer at each other and jest in undertones.
So, knowing Blanche Devine as we did, there was something resembling
a riot in one of our most respectable neighbourhoods when it was
learned that she had given up her interest in the house near the
freight depot and was going to settle down in the white cottage on the
corner and be good. All the husbands in the block, urged on by
righteously indignant wives, dropped in on Alderman Mooney after supper
to see if the thing could not be stopped. The fourth of the protesting
husbands to arrive was the Very Young Husband, who lived next door to
the corner cottage that Blanche Devine had bought. The Very Young
Husband had a Very Young Wife, and they were the joint owners of
Snooky. Snooky was three-going-on-four, and looked something like an
angel—only healthier and with grimier hands. The whole neighbourhood
borrowed her and tried to spoil her; but Snooky would not spoil.
Alderman Mooney was down in the cellar fooling with the furnace. He
was in his furnace overalls—a short black pipe in his mouth. Three
protesting husbands had just left. As the Very Young Husband, following
Mrs. Mooney's directions, cautiously descended the cellar stairs,
Alderman Mooney looked up from his tinkering. He peered through a haze
“Hello!” he called, and waved the haze away with his open palm.
“Come on down! Been tinkering with this blamed furnace since supper.
She don't draw like she ought. 'Long toward spring a furnace always
gets balky. How many tons you used this winter?”
“Oh—ten,” said the Very Young Husband shortly. Alderman Mooney
considered it thoughtfully. The Young Husband leaned up against the
side of the cistern, his hands in his pockets. “Say, Mooney, is that
right about Blanche Devine's having bought the house on the corner?”
“You're the fourth man that's been in to ask me that this evening.
I'm expecting the rest of the block before bedtime. She's bought it all
The Young Husband flushed and kicked at a piece of coal with the toe
of his boot.
“Well, it's a darned shame!” he began hotly. “Jen was ready to cry
at supper. This'll be a fine neighbourhood for Snooky to grow up in!
What's a woman like that want to come into a respectable street for
anyway? I own my home and pay my taxes—”
Alderman Mooney looked up.
“So does she,” he interrupted. “She's going to improve the
place—paint it, and put in a cellar and a furnace, and build a porch,
and lay a cement walk all round.”
The Young Husband took his hands out of his pockets in order to
emphasize his remarks with gestures.
“What's that got to do with it? I don't care if she puts in diamonds
for windows and sets out Italian gardens and a terrace with peacocks on
it. You're the alderman of this ward, aren't you? Well, it was up to
you to keep her out of this block! You could have fixed it with an
injunction or something. I'm going to get up a petition—that's what
Alderman Mooney closed the furnace door with a bang that drowned the
rest of the threat. He turned the draft in a pipe overhead and brushed
his sooty palms briskly together like one who would put an end to a
“She's bought the house,” he said mildly, “and paid for it. And it's
hers. She's got a right to live in this neighbourhood as long as she
The Very Young Husband laughed.
“She won't last! They never do.”
Alderman Mooney had taken his pipe out of his mouth and was rubbing
his thumb over the smooth bowl, looking down at it with unseeing eyes.
On his face was a queer look—the look of one who is embarrassed
because he is about to say something honest.
“Look here! I want to tell you something: I happened to be up in the
mayor's office the day Blanche signed for the place. She had to go
through a lot of red tape before she got it—had quite a time of it,
she did! And say, kid, that woman ain't so—bad.”
The Very Young Husband exclaimed impatiently:
“Oh, don't give me any of that, Mooney! Blanche Devine's a town
character. Even the kids know what she is. If she's got religion or
something, and wants to quit and be decent, why doesn't she go to
another town—Chicago or some place—where nobody knows her?”
That motion of Alderman Mooney's thumb against the smooth pipebowl
stopped. He looked up slowly.
“That's what I said—the mayor too. But Blanche Devine said she
wanted to try it here. She said this was home to her. Funny—ain't it?
Said she wouldn't be fooling anybody here. They know her. And if she
moved away, she said, it'd leak out some way sooner or later. It does,
she said. Always! Seems she wants to live like—well, like other women.
She put it like this: She says she hasn't got religion, or any of that.
She says she's no different than she was when she was twenty. She says
that for the last ten years the ambition of her life has been to be
able to go into a grocery store and ask the price of, say, celery; and,
if the clerk charged her ten when it ought to be seven, to be able to
sass him with a regular piece of her mind—and then sail out and trade
somewhere else until he saw that she didn't have to stand anything from
storekeepers, any more than any other woman that did her own marketing.
She's a smart woman, Blanche is! She's saved her money. God knows I
ain't taking her part—exactly; but she talked a little, and the mayor
and me got a little of her history.”
A sneer appeared on the face of the Very Young Husband. He had been
known before he met Jen as a rather industrious sower of that seed
known as wild oats. He knew a thing or two, did the Very Young Husband,
in spite of his youth! He always fussed when Jen wore even a V-necked
summer gown on the street.
“Oh, she wasn't playing for sympathy,” west on Alderman Mooney in
answer to the sneer. “She said she'd always paid her way and always
expected to. Seems her husband left her without a cent when she was
eighteen—with a baby. She worked for four dollars a week in a cheap
eating house. The two of 'em couldn't live on that. Then the baby—”
“Good night!” said the Very Young Husband. “I suppose Mrs. Mooney's
going to call?”
“Minnie! It was her scolding all through supper that drove me down
to monkey with the furnace. She's wild—Minnie is.” He peeled off his
overalls and hung them on a nail. The Young Husband started to ascend
the cellar stairs. Alderman Mooney laid a detaining finger on his
sleeve. “Don't say anything in front of Minnie! She's boiling! Minnie
and the kids are going to visit her folks out West this summer; so I
wouldn't so much as dare to say 'Good morning!' to the Devine woman.
Anyway a person wouldn't talk to her, I suppose. But I kind of thought
I'd tell you about her.”
“Thanks!” said the Very Young Husband dryly.
In the early spring, before Blanche Devine moved in, there came
stonemasons, who began to build something. It was a great stone
fireplace that rose in massive incongruity at the side of the little
white cottage. Blanche Devine was trying to make a home for herself. We
no longer build fireplaces for physical warmth—we build them for the
warmth of the soul; we build them to dream by, to hope by, to home by.
Blanche Devine used to come and watch them now and then as the work
progressed. She had a way of walking round and round the house, looking
up at it pridefully and poking at plaster and paint with her umbrella
or fingertip. One day she brought with her a man with a spade. He
spaded up a neat square of ground at the side of the cottage and a long
ridge near the fence that separated her yard from that of the very
young couple next door. The ridge spelled sweet peas and nasturtiums to
our small-town eyes.
On the day that Blanche Devine moved in there was wild agitation
among the white-ruffled bedroom curtains of the neighbourhood. Later on
certain odours, as of burning dinners, pervaded the atmosphere. Blanche
Devine, flushed and excited, her hair slightly askew, her diamond
eardrops flashing, directed the moving, wrapped in her great fur coat;
but on the third morning we gasped when she appeared out-of-doors,
carrying a little household ladder, a pail of steaming water and sundry
voluminous white cloths. She reared the little ladder against the side
of the house mounted it cautiously, and began to wash windows: with
housewifely thoroughness. Her stout figure was swathed in a grey
sweater and on her head was a battered felt hat—the sort of
window-washing costume that has been worn by women from time
immemorial. We noticed that she used plenty of hot water and clean
rags, and that she rubbed the glass until it sparkled, leaning
perilously sideways on the ladder to detect elusive streaks. Our
keenest housekeeping eye could find no fault with the way Blanche
Devine washed windows.
By May, Blanche Devine had left off her diamond eardrops—perhaps it
was their absence that gave her face a new expression. When she went
down town we noticed that her hats were more like the hats the other
women in our town wore; but she still affected extravagant footgear, as
is right and proper for a stout woman who has cause to be vain of her
feet. We noticed that her trips down town were rare that spring and
summer. She used to come home laden with little bundles; and before
supper she would change her street clothes for a neat, washable
housedress, as is our thrifty custom. Through her bright windows we
could see her moving briskly about from kitchen to sitting room; and
from the smells that floated out from her kitchen door, she seemed to
be preparing for her solitary supper the same homely viands that were
frying or stewing or baking in our kitchens. Sometimes you could detect
the delectable scent of browning hot tea biscuit. It takes a brave,
courageous, determined woman to make tea biscuit for no one but
Blanche Devine joined the church. On the first Sunday morning she
came to the service there was a little flurry among the ushers at the
vestibule door. They seated her well in the rear. The second Sunday
morning a dreadful thing happened. The woman next to whom they seated
her turned, regarded her stonily for a moment, then rose agitatedly and
moved to a pew across the aisle. Blanche Devine's face went a dull red
beneath her white powder. She never came again—though we saw the
minister visit her once or twice. She always accompanied him to the
door pleasantly, holding it well open until he was down the little
flight of steps and on the sidewalk. The minister's wife did not
call—but, then, there are limits to the duties of a minister's wife.
She rose early, like the rest of us; and as summer came on we used
to see her moving about in her little garden patch in the dewy, golden
morning. She wore absurd pale-blue kimonos that made her stout figure
loom immense against the greenery of garden and apple tree. The
neighbourhood women viewed these negligees with Puritan disapproval as
they smoothed down their own prim, starched gingham skirts. They said
it was disgusting—and perhaps it was; but the habit of years is not
easily overcome. Blanche Devine—snipping her sweet peas; peering
anxiously at the Virginia creeper that clung with such fragile fingers
to the trellis; watering the flower baskets that hung from her
porch—was blissfully unconscious of the disapproving eyes. I wish one
of us had just stopped to call good morning to her over the fence, and
to say in our neighbourly, small town way: “My, ain't this a scorcher!
So early too! It'll be fierce by noon!” But we did not.
I think perhaps the evenings must have been the loneliest for her.
The summer evenings in our little town are filled with intimate, human,
neighbourly sounds. After the heat of the day it is infinitely pleasant
to relax in the cool comfort of the front porch, with the life of the
town eddying about us. We sew and read out there until it grows dusk.
We call across-lots to our next-door neighbour. The men water the lawns
and the flower boxes and get together in little quiet groups to discuss
the new street paving. I have even known Mrs. Hines to bring her
cherries out there when she had canning to do, and pit them there on
the front porch partially shielded by her porch vine, but not so
effectually that she was deprived of the sights and sounds about her.
The kettle in her lap and the dishpan full of great ripe cherries on
the porch floor by her chair, she would pit and chat and peer out
through the vines, the red juice staining her plump bare arms.
I have wondered since what Blanche Devine thought of us those
lonesome evenings—those evenings filled with little friendly sights
and sounds. It is lonely, uphill business at best—this being good. It
must have been difficult for her, who had dwelt behind closed shutters
so long, to seat herself on the new front porch for all the world to
stare at; but she did sit there—resolutely—watching us in silence.
She seized hungrily upon the stray crumbs of conversation that fell
to her. The milkman and the iceman and the butcher boy used to hold
daily conversation with her. They—sociable gentlemen—would stand on
her doorstep, one grimy hand resting against the white of her doorpost,
exchanging the time of day with Blanche in the doorway—a tea towel in
one hand, perhaps, and a plate in the other. Her little house was a
miracle of cleanliness. It was no uncommon sight to see her down on her
knees on the kitchen floor, wielding her brush and rag like the rest of
us. In canning and preserving time there floated out from her kitchen
the pungent scent of pickled crab apples; the mouth-watering,
nostril-pricking smell that meant sweet pickles; or the cloying,
tantalising, divinely sticky odour that meant raspberry jam. Snooky,
from her side of the fence, often used to peer through the pickets,
gazing in the direction of the enticing smells next door. Early one
September morning there floated out from Blanche Devine's kitchen that
clean, fragrant, sweet scent of fresh-baked cookies—cookies with
butter in them, and spice, and with nuts on top. Just by the smell of
them your mind's eye pictured them coming from the oven—crisp brown
circlets, crumbly, toothsome, delectable. Snooky, in her scarlet
sweater and cap, sniffed them from afar and straightway deserted her
sandpile to take her stand at the fence. She peered through the
restraining bars, standing on tiptoe. Blanche Devine, glancing up from
her board and rolling-pin, saw the eager golden head. And Snooky, with
guile in her heart, raised one fat, dimpled hand above the fence and
waved it friendlily. Blanche Devine waved back. Thus encouraged,
Snooky's two hands wigwagged frantically above the pickets. Blanche
Devine hesitated a moment, her floury hand on her hip. Then she went to
the pantry shelf and took out a clean white saucer. She selected from
the brown jar on the table three of the brownest, crumbliest, most
perfect cookies, with a walnut meat perched atop of each, placed them
temptingly on the saucer and, descending the steps, came swiftly across
the grass to the triumphant Snooky. Blanche Devine held out the saucer,
her lips smiling, her eyes tender. Snooky reached up with one plump
“Snooky!” shrilled a high voice. “Snooky!” A voice of horror and of
wrath. “Come here to me this minute! And don't you dare to touch
those!” Snooky hesitated rebelliously, one pink finger in her pouting
mouth. “Snooky! Do you hear me?”
And the Very Young Wife began to descend the steps of her back
porch. Snooky, regretful eyes on the toothsome dainties, turned away
aggrieved. The Very Young Wife, her lips set, her eyes flashing,
advanced and seized the shrieking Snooky by one writhing arm and
dragged her away toward home and safety.
Blanche Devine stood there at the fence, holding the saucer in her
hand. The saucer tipped slowly, and the three cookies slipped off and
fell to the grass. Blanche Devine followed them with her eyes and stood
staring at them a moment. Then she turned quickly, went into the house
and shut the door.
It was about this time we noticed that Blanche Devine was away much
of the time. The little white cottage would be empty for a week. We
knew she was out of town because the expressman would come for her
trunk. We used to lift our eyebrows significantly. The newspapers and
handbills would accumulate in a dusty little heap on the porch; but
when she returned there was always a grand cleaning, with the windows
open, and Blanche—her head bound turbanwise in a towel—appearing at a
window every few minutes to shake out a dustcloth. She seemed to put an
enormous amount of energy into those cleanings—as if they were a sort
of safety valve.
As winter came on she used to sit up before her grate fire long,
long after we were asleep in our beds. When she neglected to pull down
the shades we could see the flames of her cosy fire dancing gnomelike
on the wall.
There came a night of sleet and snow, and wind and rattling
hail—one of those blustering, wild nights that are followed by
morning-paper reports of trains stalled in drifts, mail delayed,
telephone and telegraph wires down. It must have been midnight or past
when there came a hammering at Blanche Devine's door—a persistent,
clamorous rapping. Blanche Devine, sitting before her dying fire half
asleep, started and cringed when she heard it; then jumped to her feet,
her hand at her breast—her eyes darting this way and that, as though
She had heard a rapping like that before. It had meant bluecoats
swarming up the stairway, and frightened cries and pleadings, and wild
confusion. So she started forward now, quivering. And then she
remembered, being wholly awake now—she remembered, and threw up her
head and smiled a little bitterly and walked toward the door. The
hammering continued, louder than ever. Blanche Devine flicked on the
porch light and opened the door. The half-clad figure of the Very Young
Wife next door staggered into the room. She seized Blanche Devine's arm
with both her frenzied hands and shook her, the wind and snow beating
in upon both of them.
“The baby!” she screamed in a high, hysterical voice. “The baby! The
Blanche Devine shut the door and shook the Young Wife smartly by the
“Stop screaming,” she said quietly. “Is she sick?”
The Young Wife told her, her teeth chattering:
“Come quick! She's dying! Will's out of town. I tried to get the
doctor. The telephone wouldn't—I saw your light! For God's sake—”
Blanche Devine grasped the Young Wife's arm, opened the door, and
together they sped across the little space that separated the two
houses. Blanche Devine was a big woman, but she took the stairs like a
girl and found the right bedroom by some miraculous woman instinct. A
dreadful choking, rattling sound was coming from Snooky's bed.
“Croup,” said Blanche Devine, and began her fight.
It was a good fight. She marshalled her little inadequate forces,
made up of the half-fainting Young Wife and the terrified and awkward
“Get the hot water on—lots of it!” Blanche Devine pinned up her
sleeves. “Hot cloths! Tear up a sheet—or anything! Got an oilstove? I
want a teakettle boiling in the room. She's got to have the steam. If
that don't do it we'll raise an umbrella over her and throw a sheet
over, and hold the kettle under till the steam gets to her that way.
Got any ipecac?”
The Young Wife obeyed orders, whitefaced and shaking. Once Blanche
Devine glanced up at her sharply.
“Don't you dare faint!” she commanded.
And the fight went on. Gradually the breathing that had been so
frightful became softer, easier. Blanche Devine did not relax. It was
not until the little figure breathed gently in sleep that Blanche
Devine sat back satisfied. Then she tucked a cover ever so gently at
the side of the bed, took a last satisfied look at the face on the
pillow, and turned to look at the wan, dishevelled Young Wife.
“She's all right now. We can get the doctor when morning
comes—though I don't know's you'll need him.”
The Young Wife came round to Blanche Devine's side of the bed and
stood looking up at her.
“My baby died,” said Blanche Devine simply. The Young Wife gave a
little inarticulate cry, put her two hands on Blanche Devine's broad
shoulders and laid her tired head on her breast.
“I guess I'd better be going,” said Blanche Devine.
The Young Wife raised her head. Her eyes were round with fright.
“Going! Oh, please stay! I'm so afraid. Suppose she should take sick
again! That awful—awful breathing—”
“I'll stay if you want me to.”
“Oh, please! I'll make up your bed and you can rest—”
“I'm not sleepy. I'm not much of a hand to sleep anyway. I'll sit up
here in the hall, where there's a light. You get to bed. I'll watch and
see that everything's all right. Have you got something I can read out
here—something kind of lively—with a love story in it?”
So the night went by. Snooky slept in her little white bed. The Very
Young Wife half dozed in her bed, so near the little one. In the hall,
her stout figure looming grotesque in wall-shadows, sat Blanche Devine
pretending to read. Now and then she rose and tiptoed into the bedroom
with miraculous quiet, and stooped over the little bed and listened and
looked—and tiptoed away again, satisfied.
The Young Husband came home from his business trip next day with
tales of snowdrifts and stalled engines. Blanche Devine breathed a sigh
of relief when she saw him from her kitchen window. She watched the
house now with a sort of proprietary eye. She wondered about Snooky;
but she knew better than to ask. So she waited. The Young Wife next
door had told her husband all about that awful night—had told him with
tears and sobs. The Very Young Husband had been very, very angry with
her—angry and hurt, he said, and astonished! Snooky could not have
been so sick! Look at her now! As well as ever. And to have called such
a woman! Well, really he did not want to be harsh; but she must
understand that she must never speak to the woman again. Never!
So the next day the Very Young Wife happened to go by with the Young
Husband. Blanche Devine spied them from her sitting-room window, and
she made the excuse of looking in her mailbox in order to go to the
door. She stood in the doorway and the Very Young Wife went by on the
arm of her husband. She went by—rather white-faced—without a look or
a word or a sign!
And then this happened! There came into Blanche Devine's face a look
that made slits of her eyes, and drew her mouth down into an ugly,
narrow line, and that made the muscles of her jaw tense and hard. It
was the ugliest look you can imagine. Then she smiled—if having one's
lips curl away from one's teeth can be called smiling.
Two days later there was great news of the white cottage on the
corner. The curtains were down; the furniture was packed; the rugs were
rolled. The wagons came and backed up to the house and took those
things that had made a home for Blanche Devine. And when we heard that
she had bought back her interest in the House With the Closed Shutters,
near the freight depot, we sniffed.
“I knew she wouldn't last!” we said.
“They never do!” said we.