The White Shawl

Mary E. Wilkins (Freeman)

From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman (University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
undated MS. Manuscript and Archives Division, New York Public Library


“Yes, Willy.”

“Where are you?”

“Right here, Willy.”

“Sort of dark.”

“Yes, it is rather dark.”

“Don't light the lamp yet.”

“Don't worry. I won't light the lamp till you want it.”

“I — can't see out of the window. I bet I ought to stand the other way. Want — to see out the window facing the tracks.”

“You'd be right in a draft then. I'll see out the window for you.”

“Can you see the signals?”

“Course I can.”

“See the gates?”

“You know I can.” The old woman laughed sweetly, even gayly. She was spent and sad, yet there was a ring of real humor in her laugh.

Susy Dunn had a gallant soul. All her life that gay acceptance of adversity as well as joy had cheered her on like a soldier. Always before her mental vision was something like the wave of a captain's hand, the flash of a flag.

“See 'em without glasses, too,” she added, “spite of all the doctors telling me I ought to put 'em on years ago.”

“Susy, little tired,” the broken-hearted woman laughed again. She knew what she knew about the track, but kept her knowledge to herself.

He did not dream of the real seriousness of the situation, this old dying keeper of the crossing-gates.

That morning the doctor who was attending him had told Susy that the man who had charge of the signal tower had died suddenly. There was not a man in the village who could fill his place, and there was the worst north-easter of the winter raging.

One of the directors of the railroad lived in the village and Doctor Evarts had just seen him. “Little Sloane girl has tonsilities, and I was in there this morning,” he told Susy. “And Sloane was near out of his mind about this signal tower here. He says it's one of the nastiest little danger spots on the road with those tracks crossing the way they do. The Corporation ought to fix it. Sloane says it has been brought up time and time again, and he's said and voted all he can, but some of them are waiting for an accident to get a move on. Sloane had wired to Oxbridge for a man and got a reply that he'd come. I guess it's all right if he can get here. It is one of the worst storms I was ever out in, and that road to Oxbridge drifts enough to stall a train when every other road is clear.”

Susy looked at him with quick anxiety. “Willy knows about the signals as well as the gates. If he knew he would be out there if he was dying,” she said.

“Musn't let him know, whatever you tell him.”

Susy watched the doctor's car hump and slide out of the yard and down the road. “He can't get here again to-day,” she thought.

Then she had begun to watch the signal tower and the gates from the window. She had not seen one signal; the gates had not gone down. Only two trains had gone through after the doctor left, a passenger and a short freight.

Every moment which she could snatch, she had spent in watching the signal-tower seeming to veer and slant before the fierce drive of the snow-packed gale. She knew that the boy who had taken Willy's place at the gates was not there. She had wondered if possibly the boy might not have taught him. But she knew, as the hours wore on, that there was no man for the tower, no boy for the gates, and the earth like an ocean in a hurricane, heaving up mountains of deadly fury, in gulfs of despair.

Willy questioned her continually and she lied those lies which the unselfish lie to spare pain.

“Jimmy tending the gates?”

“Yes, Willy.”

“See him?”

“Yes, Willy.”

“Hope he holds out. He ain't anything but a boy. It would be pretty hard for Tom minding the tower and the gates too. Hope he holds out.”

“Don't you worry. He'll hold out.”

“The snow ain't drifted, is it?”

Susy laughed her gallant laugh in the face of a dreadful world. “I guess a canary bird could hop over all the drifts I see.”

“Tom tending the signals all right?”

“Didn't you see the green light yourself on the wall at the foot of your bed when the last train went through?”

“I don't know. My eyes seem sort of dim.”

“I guess you forget seeing it.”

“My eyes are dim. Susy, is the wind blowing just as hard?”

“Wind must be going down.”

“I can't hear any too well. Half the time can't tell whether a noise is in my head or outside it,” Willy sighed wearily.

“You hear all right.”

“I wish I could go out and see for myself that the signals and the gates are being tended to.”

“Now Willy, you stop worrying. You'll get so you can't get out to tend the gates for a month if you worry. You'll make yourself worse. You must stop it. It's wearing on you, and it's sort of wearing on me too.”

“I don't mean to tire you all out, Susy.”

“Of course you don't. You're my blessed old man. I speak so just on your own account. The signals will be tended and the gates kept. I promise you that and you know I never promise you anything that don't come true.”

“You mustn't try to go out, Susy. You are too lame.”

“Who said anything about my going out? There's the three fifty-seven now; it is almost fifteen minutes late. Hear it?”

“I can't seem to,” the old man replied patiently. “Gates and signals all right?”

“See the green light show up on the wall there and winking in the looking glass over the shelf?”

“Mebbe I do see it.”

Willy lay in his bed, very flatly, the patchwork quilt drawn up under his sharp, bristling old chin. Through his beard-stubble his skin gleamed ghastly white. His eyes were still bright with a strange questioning brightness, seeming to demand information concerning the destination of a little unimportant, unknown old man. Old Willy Dunn's eyes, as he lay there dying, asked terrible questions.

Susy seemed to hear them. They shouted, unanswered in her own heart, stirring it to rebellion, because of the love of an old wife, which passes the love of a mother, for her old man, as the time of parting drew near.

The angry love and pity, which filled her heart, as she watched over her dying husband, expanded it to almost breaking point. Her small old face was beautiful with fadeless romance and endurance of youth.

Willy had always thought his wife very beautiful, never dreaming that it was the love for him shining from her whole face which made her seem so. Always when a man sees himself reflected as a god in the eyes of a woman, he sees the mystery of beauty and does not understand.

Before the day quite faded Susy prepared Willy's supper. The light in the room was now ghastly, a snow-light streaming through the windows like the effulgence from a corpse. The wind blew fiercely, many miles an hour. Great waves of snow sprayed against the windows, with every departing gust leaving always a delicately frozen spume.

Susy was thankful that her husband could not hear the roar of the wind, could not see with his failing eyes the up-toss of the storm. Now and then she drew the quilt over his face, opened the window giving on the railroad crossing, and brushed away the snow. She kept that one window clear enough to enable her to see the gates and the tower.

Susy placed Willy's little meal before him and tugged at his sinking shoulders with her skinny arms. “Try and lift yourself up a little mite, pa,” she said. Ever since they had lost their one child years ago, she had sometimes called Willy “pa.” It pleased him.

Poor old Willy tried, but he was very feeble. His thin shoulders heaved upward then sank down helplessly. “I — don't — seem to — want anything to — eat,” he gasped.

“Just take a swaller of this nice hot tea and a mouthful of this milk toast.”

Susy kept her arm under Willy's neck and fed him. His mouth gaped like a sick bird's. He swallowed pitifully obedient, but with great difficulty.

When Susy took the tray away, tears were streaming over her face. “You shan't be pestered any longer, pa,” she said.

She carried the tray into the kitchen and set it on the table. She leaned her head against the wall, and shook with great sobs. “Sometimes being deaf is a blessing for them that can't hear,” she wailed out.

All her little body was racked with terrible grief. The black and white cat came rubbing against her, as animals will do when their beloved humans are in grief. His back arched, his tail waved. He made little affectionate leaps against her knees. Susy caught him up and wept into his soft fur until it was sodden.

Suddenly she heard Willy call. She put the cat down softly and hurried into the next room.

“Is it — time for — the express?” Willy gasped wildly.

“Wait a minute. I'll see.” Susy went close to the loud-ticking clock on the shelf. “Not quite time.”

“How long?”

“Oh, a good twenty-five minutes.”

“Has it stopped snowing?”

Susy gazed out at the gray drifting violence of the snow and lied again. “Yes, Willy.”

“Has it drifted? I wonder if Jimmy will have grit enough to stay all night with Tom if the snow is deep on the tracks and he has to be extra watching. Pretty hard on Tom to see to the tower and gates both on a bad night. Wonder if — Jimmy has got — grit enough.”

“Course he has. Boys always have more grit than grown men. Don't know enough to be scared.”

As Susy spoke, she knew in the depths of her agonized heart that Jimmy, little fair-haired, mother's boy, had not had grit enough even to face the elemental odds of the day, for his coming, much less for staying. She knew that the Oxbridge train had been stalled, that the man for whom Mr. Sloane had wired had not arrived. She knew of Tom, stark and dead, released from all tasks of earth. She knew that not a human being, man or boy was there to tend signals or gates. A night of awful storm was closing in. It was nearly time for the express; another train, a local, was due seven minutes later. If either or both was off schedule! Off schedule in that blinding fury of white storm, what then?

Susy said she would go down cellar for more coal before it got darker. When she was down cellar she began to pray. Susy came of a God-fearing race. All her life, she had read the Bible, she had attended church, she had prayed — now she prayed. For the first time in her life in the cold, gloomy cellar, knees on stones, prostrate before a mighty conception of a higher Power, cut off from all human aid, she realized some Presence while she prayed. Great waves of love and awe, also a terrible defiance born of despair, swept over her.

“God Almighty,” prayed Susy in her wild voice of accusation and terror, and the greatest love of Humanity, the love for its Creator, despite the awful suffering of enforced life. “God Almighty, show me how to keep the gates. You sent the storm. You call Tom from this world. You know. Lives will be lost, lives not finished. Help me to keep the gates.”

Susy carried the scuttle of coal upstairs. As she entered the room Willy stirred. “The express.”

Susy heard a swiftly swelling roar. She ran to the window. A green light flashed out, a slanting shaft of green light; the gates clanged down.

“The express has gone through,” she proclaimed in a loud, strangely clear voice.

“The signals? The gates?”

“The green light came on; the gates went down.”

A gasp of relief came from the little mound of humanity in the bed. “Tom — Jimmy, there?”

Susy said nothing. She was trying to light the lamp. Her hands were cold and stiff.

“Why don't you speak, ma?”

“Everything was all right, pa.”

“Both there,” Willy murmured peacefully. The shadow of a smile was over his gray face.

After the lamp was lighted, Susy looked at the clock. It was time for the local, overtime by two minutes. The express had been late. Susy stood out of sight of Willy. She seemed as if in a closet of sacredly isolated self, alone with her new conception of God.

She prayed again with a terrible silent shout of her whole being. “The gates, the signals. God, show me how to keep them.”


“Yes, pa.”

“Blow out the lamp and watch for the next train.”

“Yes, pa.”

Susy blew out the light and sat down beside the window. It seemed to her that the whole room was vocal with her prayer. It drowned the roar of the storm for her.

The man in the bed breathed heavily. She knew that his dying eyes were strained toward the window.

Susy saw or thought she saw the green light flash out like a living emerald; the gates swing majestically down. Then the train labored past after a short stop. No one got off the train. “No passengers to-night, pa,” she called out loudly.

The engineer was visible leaning sidewise from the cab in a cloud of rosy smoke. The gates reared up, the train chugged out of sight, the red light disappearing through the drive of the snow.

“All right, pa. There was the green light, then the gates went down, the train came and stopped, no passengers; saw Mike Kelly leaning out the engine. Then the train went on, now the gates are up. Don't you worry one mite more pa. A higher Power than us looks out for things sometimes.”

“Jimmy is an awful smart boy to be tugging at the gates such a night as this,” the old man said, almost sobbing.

“He wouldn't be so smart if there wasn't some higher Power back of him.” Susy's voice had a noble quality, also a curiously shamed one. She could not show even to her dying husband more than a glimpse of her stunned faith.

“Light the lamp now, Susy.”

Susy lighted the lamp. It stood on the table in the centre of the room, the table with a fringed cover. Susy looked at the old man in the bed. He was changing rapidly. He was so sunken upon himself that he seemed disappearing. His face was sharped out with the death-rigor. His mouth was open ready to gasp.

“How do you feel, pa?”

“I — don't know, ma.”

“You'll be better in the morning.”

Willy made a slight movement with his head. A ghost of a smile, half sweet, half sardonic, widened his face. He said something which Susy did not catch.

“Anything you want, pa?”

Susy placed her ear close to the poor gaping mouth, struggling into speech. She heard one word and understood.

It was Sunday night, and always on Sunday night, she and Willy had been accustomed to a chapter in the Bible, which Willy read, and he afterward repeated the Lord's Prayer. Susy got the Bible from the centre table, put on her spectacles, and read the Twenty-third Psalm. Willy could not hear at first. Finally she raised her voice to a shout. Then she knelt beside the bed and said the Lord's Prayer, also in a very loud voice.

After the Amen, she did not rise. She still knelt, her face buried in the bed-clothes. She was then praying her own terrible, almost blasphemous prayer about the signals and the gates. Susy felt a feeble touch on her bowed head, an inquiring, wondering touch. She rose.

“I didn't hear the — Amen.”

“I said it.”

“Blow out the light and look at the tower and the — gates — ma.”

“They will be all right.”

As Susy rose a red light shone out on the opposite wall. The old man raised himself in bed with an awful cry.

“Danger!” cried old Willy, whose dying body kept his faithful soul from duty. “The red light! Danger!”

Susy sobbed dryly. She ran across the red light, laying like a flag over the floor, into her bedroom. It was icy cold. The room was not quite dark because of the dreadful corpse-like pallor of the storm, driving in full fury against the one window.

Susy sank on her knees beside the white-mounded bed, hearing as she did so, poor Willy's feeble cry of “Danger!” Susy prayed again. She was there only a second, but in that second was concentrated the mighty impulse of a human heart toward the Greatness from which it came, toward which it went.

Susy hastened back to the other room. It was full of golden light. “Tom's onto it,” whispered Willy, “Tom and Jimmy. That light's caution. They're lookin' out. Yellow light — Caution.”

Suddenly instead of the yellow light flashed the splendid green.

“Track clear!” Willy shouted with incredible strength. “Susy! Window!”

Susy looked out of the window, shading her eyes from the light in the room with her curved hand.

“Green light,” she said in her voice of strange awe and triumph. “Green light, train through.”

Willy lay still.

“Hear the train, pa?”

Willy did not reply.

Susy left the window and bent over her husband. He seemed fairly melting into the bed so complete was his collapse. Obviously nothing had kept him alive so long except his anxiety over his unfulfilled duty, acting like a stimulant to his passing soul.

Susy sobbed, a little meek, dry sob. Her husband paid no heed. She went again into the freezing bedroom. When she came out, her face was pitiful but stern. She brought clothing and sheets, and laid them in neat piles on a sofa.

It was time for Willy's medicine. She held the spoon to his ashy parted lips. “Try and swaller, pa.”

Willy moved his head slightly in meek protest. He rolled his eyes pitifully at his wife. He could not swallow.

“You shan't be pestered any more, pa,” Susy said.

She put away the medicine. Then she sat beside the bed and waited. Her stern, pitying, loving eyes never swerved from her husband's face. She saw him in the past, the present. She saw him obediently dying there, an old spent man; she saw him in his strong middle-age when he had held a responsible position in connection with the railroad. Mr. Sloane had obtained it for him. He had always been a good friend of Willy's.

After Willy's fever which had prematurely aged him, Mr. Sloane had placed him in the only post for which his strength was fitted, gate-keeper, and paid him liberally. She saw Willy in his youth when he had come courting her. He had been a gay, laughing, handsome boy. All the girls had envied her.

The old wife, sitting beside her dying man, loved him with a comprehension and memory of the fullness of love as she had never loved him before. Through the hours the storm howled and drifted, the signals never failed, and the crossing-gates clanged up and down amid the chugging roar of the laboring trains, and no disaster befell.

When the weak new day was born, the storm was over, and the man in the bed had begun his dreadful stertorous last breathings of mortal life. Susy raised his lopping head in an effort to ease him. She had seen people die. She knew that Willy was dying.

It was past three o'clock. She thought dully that Doctor Evarts would not come now until daylight. “Most likely his car got stalled trying to get here,” her thoughts spelled out. Susy was anxious about the doctor. He was not young, he was overworked, and such a storm was a man-killer like a beast of the jungle. She reflected that his coming could do no good here. Her poor old man was past medical science. Doctor Evarts was to have brought the district nurse with him on this call. The nurse would have been a comfort, a good, middle-aged woman who had buried her own husband.

Susy hoped the nurse, if she were with the doctor in the stalled car, was well wrapped. It was clearing cold. Willy continued to breathe those shocking breaths which mark the passing of a soul from its body of earth. Susy spoke to him now and then, but he did not seem to hear her.

She sat still and watched. The breaths seemed to shake the house. Suddenly they stopped. It was still, and the stillness seemed to smite the ears like a cannonade.

Susy was stunned for a few moments. Then she rose and went about her last duty to her husband, her little wiry body and frail arms doing apparently superhuman tasks. She was lame, too. She had fallen and injured her knee the winter before and had never fully recovered.

She limped about, performing her last duties to her husband slowly and painfully, but thoroughly. At last the little dead man lay peacefully in his clean smooth bed, his upturned face wearing an expression of calm rapture.

Susy crept across to the window. The storm was over. At the last it had rained and frozen. The earth looked like a white ocean suddenly petrified at the height of the storm. The trees were bent stiffly to the icy snow and fastened there. The telegraph wires sagged in rigid loops. Everything gave out blinding lights as from sheets of silver and gold with sudden flashes of jewels. Susy gazed out dumbly for a few minutes. Then she collapsed. She lay quite still on the floor, a little helpless bundle, until Doctor Evarts and the nurse found her.

Following them was a tall, fur-coated man, Sloane the railroad director. His high-powered car had made it possible for the doctor's small one to get through the drifts, had in fact towed it. The doctor and the nurse lifted little Susy, carried her into the bedroom, and worked over her.

Sloane bent over the dead man, his face very grave. He had been Willy's friend. The two had been boys in school together. Sloane sat down beside the window which gave on the station. He looked both sad and puzzled.

The doctor and the nurse went back and forth between the bedroom and the warm kitchen. The fragrance of coffee filled the air. Sloane stopped the doctor. “How is she?”

“All right. Little determined women like her have terrible tenacity of life. She only dropped because for the moment she was down and out.”

“Who laid him out?”



The doctor laughed grimly. “I don't know, suppose I might say reserve strength. No mortal, man or woman, knows how much is owned, until a test comes.”

“I cannot understand.”

“Neither can I. It is physically impossible apparently of course, but there you are, no one else was here. She did it. Women of her sort are almost terrible when a demand is made on their love and strength, and there is no one else. Sometimes it has seemed to me they can work miracles.”

“She is a good little woman. I shall see that she is provided for all the rest of her life in comfort.”

“Glad to hear that. Come out in the kitchen and have some coffee. Wait a minute. Come to the door with me first.”

The men stood in the doorway looking out at the blinding, glittering morning. The crossing gates upreared, splendid slant of ice. There was a little chimney in the tower. It was plumed with violet and rosy smoke.

“The line to that tower there, the telephone line was open all night,” Sloane said in a curious, dry voice.

The doctor turned sharply on him. “Open? Thought the telephone lines were all out. Mine was and is.”

“That line to the tower, special line, was open all night. Kept calling up, always got an answer.”

“Who answered?”

“I don't know. Didn't know the voice. It was thin and low, but very clear, almost like singing.”

“You see there is not one foot print to that tower. Foot prints would show in the crust.”

Ending I

The doctor nodded.

“Wait a bit. I am going over there.”

The doctor stood waiting while Sloane went crunching through the frozen snow-crust. He was not gone long.

The nurse came and told the doctor about Susy. “She is coming to,” she said softly. “She wants her little white shawl. I can't find it.”

“Well, put something else over her, I will be in directly.”

Sloane returned, a fluffy mass over his arm. He was obviously agitated.

“What is it?” asked the doctor.

“Looks to me like a woman's shawl, found it right beside the telephone.”

The doctor paled slowly. “It is Susy's shawl. Have seen her wearing it dozens of times. She has just asked for it. The nurse told me.”

The doctor took the shawl into the house.

“Coming out all right,” he said to Sloane when he returned. “That was her shawl.”

“Did she remember?”

“No, and she must not be told. She is cast on simple lines.”

The men stood staring at each other in a sort of horror.

“How in Heaven's name do you account for it?” Sloane gasped.

“Don't account for it. This is not the first time I have been at a loss to account for them. Maybe there is a thinner wall and a door into the next dimension for loving women that men never find. Love like that woman's is an invincible Power.”

Ending II

The doctor nodded.

“Wait a bit. I'm going over there.” Sloane went crunching through the snow-crust.

The doctor stood gazing reflectively out at the diamond-morning, a triumph of winter, offered to the attention of those who love beauty.

The nurse came and told the doctor about Susy.

“She is conscious,” she said. “Will be all right presently. She is asking for her little white shawl. I can't find it.”


“Perhaps, maybe just a habit.”

“Perhaps. She always has that thing over her shoulders. Go back and find something else for her until I come. I am waiting for Mr. Sloane.”

The nurse obeyed, casting a puzzled glance at the doctor.

Sloane returned. He had a fluffy white mass over his arm. He was obviously agitated.

“What is it?” asked the doctor.

“Looks to me like a woman's shawl, found it beside the telephone.”

The doctor paled. “That is Susy's shawl,” he said slowly. “Have seen her wearing it all the time. The nurse has been here. She has come to and asked for it. I will take it in and see if she remembers.”

Sloane was drinking more coffee in the kitchen when the doctor entered. “She is coming out all right,” he said. “Strange what tremendous reserve strength there is sometimes in a little woman like that.”

“Did she remember?”

“Of course not. She must never know where you found that shawl. She is cast on simple lines. Dangerous to snare them.”

Sloane stared an expression of horror. “How in Heaven's name do you account for it?”

“Don't account for it. This is not the first time for me. Of course you know as well as I do that there are other dimensions beside this in which we live and move and have our being. I believe that sometimes the partition walls are very thin for certain souls, perhaps transparent and there may be entrances for them under certain stress, of which you and I know nothing. That little woman in there had the almost invincible power of a great unselfish love last night. It certainly enabled her to go beyond our horizon view. That is all I can say. Bless her with her little white shawl.”

“I too,” said Sloane.