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I Have Promises To Keep
by Sutapa Basu (Contest Entry) | Published On: 05-Dec-2014

Based on Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.

His house is in the village though;

He will not see me stopping here

To watch his woods fill up with snow.

 

My little horse must think it queer

To stop without a farmhouse near

Between the woods and frozen lake

The darkest evening of the year.

 

He gives his harness bells a shake

To ask if there is some mistake.

The only other sound’s the sweep

Of easy wind and downy flake.

 

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

I tugged hard, only once, and Dobbin, my faithful, little Shetland pony, instantly came up short.  Jerked forward at the sudden brake, the reins sharply dug into my palms through fur lined kid gloves. The cart crunched in the fresh snow to stop short of the last row of firs and junipers lining the shores of the frozen lake. I lifted my face to the soft floating flakes and breathed in deeply of the hushed chill air. The cottage across the icy expanse was clearly visible against the gathering gloom. The heavy frosted layers had slid off the sloping roof burying it in a snow pile that reached up with quavery fingers to touch its windows glowing golden in mellow lamps lit in every room. Around me, tall dark trees encrusted with icy jewels added to the early gloom enveloping the woods. My white fur cloak and bonnet melded into the snowy landscape. Though the deserted lanes and cluster of homesteads across the lake was visible to me, I was well hidden from view.

I squinted at the yellow square and arched leaded glass panes. Was that somebody passing the front bay window? And could that somebody be Ashley? His broad shoulders would form a distinct shadow against all that light. Oh Ashley! If only I could see you one last time! My yearning was so palpable that it left an undercurrent of pain making me gasp. I closed my eyes as soft, icy wafers fell on my mittens leaving damp patches. Ashley! Ashley! Ashley! His beloved face rose behind my eyelids and the memories jostled for space. Imagination tingled my nostrils with his scent—a mixture of tobacco and cologne! I could, once again, feel his smooth broadcloth coat against my cheek. Ashley always stoutly maintained that the credibility of lawyers was influenced in no small way by their attire; decorous yet quietly affluent. Son of the richest farmer in the county, he was casual about his large inheritance but habituated to the best. In fact, these woods that were slowly filling up with the crumbly, powdery white munificence belonged to his family.

As far back as I could remember, Ashley had been a part of my life. Though his father, Mr Webster, was busy caring for his various land holdings, he always found time to spend with my father, the headmaster of the local school. Their love of the written word was the foundation of their life-long friendship. They would meet several times a week either at his house or my father’s small farm. His mother was hardly ever seen during these visits, but Ashley would always be there. While the two men would contentedly smoke their pipes and discuss poetry, politics and philosophy, Ashley and I would either play Indians and cowboys in the yard or climb the apple trees planted by my mamma. Those were truly halcyon days when Ashley and I promised each other undying friendship forever and ever. Not a cloud dimmed the endless blue sky that stretched before us, like our lives in which every dream seemed possible.

Ashley and I had gone to the same village school. At first my mother had objected. She believed too much schooling turned the heads of females and that I would be gainfully occupied learning to sew and bake and imbibing the social etiquette of a lady. My father held the strong conviction that it was knowledge that liberated all from the narrow alleys of hypocrisy and irreverence leading nowhere. ‘Gender doesn’t matter; whether it is a girl or a boy, everyone deserves to know better. What matters, above all, is to be a good human being, Anne,’ he always said. I was so glad that his conviction won the day.

All through our school days, Ashley had been my staunch supporter in class and outside it. When I questioned the theories aired by our teachers, he would give me an encouraging smile. When I was told sharply to sit down, the other children would snigger. Ashley would look around with a frowning countenance. As he was taller than most, as well as the son the School Board member, the sounds would die down.  After school, Ashley and I would, rummage through Papa’s shelves stacked with atlases and books, looking for answers to my queries. And when we found them or some semblance to them, we would smile triumphantly like miners striking gold. I would play all boys’ games, turning my nose up at the dolls the other girls swooned over. And if I argued, which was frequently, Ashley would not only shout as loudly as I did at the others, but even add his fists to my pummeling ones, if needed. Mamma would often throw up her hands and berate Papa for the wild cat I was growing into, but Papa had only smiled.

‘Girls don’t get into fisticuffs. Girls must learn to be docile and agreeable. They must be soft, delicate creatures and control emotions. Gentlemen cherish ladies not belligerent nettles. And a lady must always yield her will to men. They know how the world goes around not us. So learn to acquiesce, Sara.’ Mamma would lecture.

I let my eyes sweep over the cart laden with sacks of flour, tins of butter, biscuits, cloth to sew into curtains, and even seeds for the vegetable patch, now fast getting obscured under a white blanket. And where would we be today, if I had been a delicate, helpless lady? Alan. No, Major Alan Harrington, my brother was away at Washington, recruiting for General Grant’s army. Ever since Papa had died suddenly with a heart attack, Mamma had been stricken with severe arthritis and was often confined to her bed. Who would have got all the stores, the coal, repaired the barn, dug the garden, handled the croppers and managed the farm? Our farm was a good five miles away from the village. Dobbin and I had to make the trip at least twice a week for replenishments and errands. Of course, Alan had insisted that we stay with him in his town house at Washington and we had even done that for six months. And what an exciting six months it had been! I was witness to a life that I had never imagined existed; a life completely alien to my days in our sleepy, quiet village. Alan’s friends and visitors filled the two large salons every evening. There were social discussions, political debates, and literary critiques by those about whom I had only read in newspapers that reached our village library once a week. I met and heard so many erudite and learned men and women. Yes women! These were not quiet, agreeable ladies; they argued vigorously about the suffrage movement and women’s rights. And some of these women were breathtakingly beautiful as well as dressed in the height of fashion in the latest style of skirts shortened to show off well-turned out ankles. For me, it was wisdom as I breathed in the rarified air. One evening, I was a thrilled spectator to a vociferous analysis of Margaret Fuller’s latest poem, ‘The One in You’. I learned much more in those six months than what my books had taught me in the eighteen years of my life. Political events held everyone’s attention. Mr Abraham Lincoln awed me totally but when I heard conversations night after night I realized the logic of his policies. My admiration of this simple yet deeply committed gentleman increased manifold. I used to be so caught up with it all that I hardly wrote Ashley two letters in all those months.  I was also taken up by a very interesting, young man I met there. Bespectacled and shy, Ernest Davis was an officer like Alan. And my brother told me that he was involved in gathering intelligence, whatever that meant. When I tried to find out more, all he said was that he made and broke codes. Apparently, all messages between army units had to be in special code languages so that if the messenger was taken captive, the enemy would not be able to retrieve any information about military plans.  How intriguing! Not only that, when I was able to break through his diffidence, he taught me some simple numerical codes. That was immensely enjoyable. But like all good things, our sojourn came to an end. Mamma’s arthritis worsened in the damp Washington autumn and Alan had to go away with a posting to the frontlines. And it was sowing season. Who would look after the croppers and supervise the tilling, if not I? So we returned. And while I was engaged in  all the Washington excitement, my fate had been sealed at home, forever and ever.   

The only person, Ashley could not stand up to, was his Mamma. He had not wanted to study law. After school, he had confessed to me, that all he wanted was to look after the farms, shoot and fish in the woods, and live in a cottage at the edge of the lake. But that was not to be. Mrs Webster, rumoured to have descended directly from one of the Puritan families , declared that her son had to go to New York to become a coat-and-tails lawyer.

So one fine summer’s day, Ashley boarded a carriage to New York. I tried to continue my learning by delving into Papa’s rows and rows of books and reading everything that the village library had to offer. Ashley and I had kept contact through long letters written every Sunday. Even then, as I wrote passionately about the politics, economics, and social transformations, I read about in the papers, he wrote back about the new suffrage movement started by Mrs Elizabeth Stanton. His letters described in detail the first convention of Women’s Rights held at New York in 1848, where it had been declared that, “all men and women were created equal.” Ashley echoed my sentiments.

Ashley returned a qualified lawyer and had ridden over to our farm, the first thing that morning. I can never forget my first sight of him, after a separation of three years. He looked so self-assured, poised and debonair! He had grown up and I felt gauche and childish next to him. Hatless, his ash blonde hair falling in soft waves on his forehead, the hard ride staining his face ruddy, his perfect teeth flashing a wide smile, he was like a knight on his steed. Though I had never admitted it till then, I had always known my looks could never hold a candle to his. Till then it hadn’t mattered. But that night, after Ashley had left leaving behind a wonderful glow of his tales of New York, I had sat for a long time staring into the mirror. The familiar face framed by masses of auburn hair, the long nose between grey, cool eyes were unattractive, I told myself, soberly. The only redeeming features were a small mouth with its sculpted lips and a slim waist. I was tall, but how much ever Mamma fed me to plump out my hips and chest fashionably, I was more statuesque rather than curved like an hourglass. I remember, Ashley, had once likened me to the Grecian goddess we had glimpsed in Pappa’s illustrated encyclopedia, but I had laughed in his face. ‘Me, Juno?’

‘Why not? Only you have to stop chattering so much.’ And I had playfully pulled his pigtail.

 Now as I sat looking at all my imperfections, I wished I had a clear, pink rose complexion and a bosom that struck out. Then I had tossed my dark hair, plaited it and got between the bedclothes. My last thoughts before dozing off were, ‘He came to see me as soon as he reached home. That must mean something.’

A breeze sang through the pine needles and Dobbin stamped his feet throwing up clumps of snow. The harness bells tinkled. Dobbin must be surprised, wondering why we had stopped in the middle of the woods. We had never done this before. Yes Dobbin, we hadn’t because my heart had never ached so much before. Oh Ashley! How could you?

It had been the winter ball at the village hall, just a couple of months before Mamma and I had gone off to Washington. It was past midnight and the rooms were stuffy with two fires roaring and a lot of young energetic people dancing away. Even the chaperones were fanning themselves vigorously. I was not much of a dancer but had still accepted half dozen invitations to please Mamma. In fact, I preferred talking to dancing. You can’t talk when you were kicking up your feet trying to keep in step with your partner. Ashley had had the first dance with me and then had been whisked away by his mamma. I was aware that Ashley’s mamma did not approve of me, a poor schoolmaster’s daughter and not even a pretty one at that! She wanted him to socialize with the other debutantes, such as Sally or rather my private name for her, Silly Sally. Like most of us in the village, Sally had been our classmate right from Kindergarten and everyone knew about her infamous giggles. They erupted at the slightest pretext, trilling through the room and drilling through your head, going on and on, ad nauseam. Apparently, once they started, they were unstoppable or so claimed Sally! Other than the giggles, Sally with her corkscrew ringlets, fluttering lashes and large, blue eyes that had a constant expression of amazement, could have been mistaken for one of the china dolls that little girls carried around. Now, of course, she had grown up, evident by the ample, creamy bosom spilling out of the décolletage of her red evening gown with golden locks artfully arranged on them.  The fluttering lashes and amazed blue eyes were her signature feature. Only they accentuated whenever a pair of male eyes fell on her.

Eventually Ashley had escaped Mrs Webster and the debutantes.  Downing my second glass of wine, in an attempt to quench my dry throat, I had seen him skillfully twisting his way through the dancers. Feeling hot and sweaty, I nodded towards the door. Gathering the skirts of my midnight blue gown which set off my eyes, according to Mamma, I pushed through the crush. I knew Ashley would follow me. Once we were outside, I took some deep gulps of the sharp, cold air and instantly felt better. I went to the wooden rails of the covered porch and looked up. The star-spangled night seemed so serene. I could see Orion shining and turned around to point it out to Ashley. He was right behind and close enough for me to smell the scotch on his breath. The words died on my lips as I looked into his eyes. Even in the starlight, what I saw in his eyes made my pulse beat faster. I was standing between his hands that gripped the rails on both sides. He lowered his face, the stars were snuffed out as our lips met. Startled, my lips remained stiff for a moment and then yielded to the pressure. As his tongue entered my mouth, a fiery flame leaped up from my belly. Involuntarily, I kissed him back; once; twice; then again and again. Even I was taken aback by the fierce hunger my body betrayed. His arms were around me now and his body moulded to mine, as my fingers clutched his hair, tugged his pigtail to press his head down. I leaned into him crushing his carefully-tied necktie. We were one entity; blind, deaf, unfeeling to all but this overwhelming sensation of welding to each other. All our senses only strained to gauge the other half of the One. Even now, I can feel tiny flickering pleasurable impulses in the core of my being as that voluptuous memory fills my consciousness! How long we stayed this way satiating our thirst at each other’s fount, I don’t know. But laughter and voices penetrated our bubble and we reluctantly moved apart. Some guests went down the stairs to their carriages without giving us a second glance. Raw heat smouldered between us but it was too risky; too public, for us to give way there.

The next few weeks were hedonistic to say the least. We met at every opportunity; in the corn fields, in these woods, by the lake. There were walks, dances, rides and more passionate kisses. Though, between us, it was a foregone conclusion that we would marry, he had to ask me formally, before we could announce our engagement to everyone. I was getting a little impatient as we packed for our Washington visit. And the day of my departure came around without Ashley uttering a single word. I was hurt but how could I speak up? That was not done. I wonder what had tied his tongue. Had it been his mamma’s disapproval? Should I have spoken---taken the lead as I had always done?

I looked across to the cottage; its eaves hanging a garland of icicles. O Ashley! Can’t you come out for just a moment and let have one look of you? Had you been waiting for me to propose? But that is preposterous! Or was it the last discussion we had had about the voting rights of women? For once, Ashley had not agreed. He did not argue. That had never been his way. All he did was put forward various examples of poor female judgment and the burden they would bear if they entered the political arena. Like always, I had heatedly disagreed and accused him of being chauvinistic. Did I go too far? Had my words hurt him? Was I really the blue stocking who would die an old maid, as my mamma had warned me off and on.

Ashley, what made you do what you did? Sometimes, in the dark, sleepless nights, I often wondered whether I had been too passionate--- shown too much fervor; was too eager to kiss? Should I have been more reticent? Did he think I was too forward or even lustful? But how could he? He had known me all his life.

Then why? O why did you let Silly Sally take my place?

By the time, I had returned from Washington, Ashley had been married to Sally for two whole months and was living in the cottage by the lake, a gift from his father. Tell me, Ashley, what did Sally have, that I did not? Rather what was it that you sought? Did Sally have it? Could Sally give it but not I?  

The moment these words crossed my mind, it slammed into me with the force of a sledgehammer!

It was not me! Till now I had been moping, all the while, thinking it had been my fault----something that I had done to make him run away and fall into the arms of the first female he saw. Because nobody in their right senses would marry Silly Sally!

But no! The fact was, it had been Ashley; for all his learning and supporting of women’s rights, he had always needed somebody to follow. But as a husband he was expected to take the lead and he knew that there was no way that he could lead me. So he chose Sally, who didn’t even know why she giggled so insanely! She would turn his inadequacy to sufficiency. With her he could always be the man!  O dear Ashley! Beneath all your Adonis beauty, were you always so weak? Did I only see your lean dimples, your flaxen curls, your blue eyes and not notice that my Roman god had feet of clay!

Another tinkle of bells and it seemed a vast weight rolled off my shoulders. Yes Dobbin, let us go our way. I touched my cheeks. They were wet with tears. When did I weep? Why was I weeping? I was free! Free of all self doubts; free of misconceptions; free of ties that would have become restrictive with time.

The flakes were falling bigger and faster now. The darkness had deepened and Mamma would be worried. I tugged the reins and Dobbin started clip clopping through the thick white, woolly path. It is time I had reached back. Dinner had to be arranged for Alan and his nice friend, Ernest. I am looking forward to meeting him. He wants me to design some codes. Imagine, he asked me? He wants to use some unique languages during the forthcoming war with the Southern states. It is a horrifying thought that in a matter of months, we will be fighting our own people just because some men were too egoistic accept President Lincoln’s generous offer. It really is essential that women participate in these decisions that shake the hearth and home. Possibly then decisions would be more sensible.

I look back at the windows gleaming from the faraway cottage. Ashley, I hope you find the happiness you seek. As for me, I must go on, forever and ever, for there is much to do. There are promises I have made; promises to people; promises to Life; promises to myself. Promises that I intend keeping whatever the cost.

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