"A Middle Aged Woman." The Independent, 1 September 1904, pp. 489-94.

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"A Middle Aged Woman." The Independent, 1 September 1904, pp. 489-94.




“A Middle-Aged Woman”

By Rebecca Harding Davis

The clock was pointing to six when Mrs. Shore and her son’s wife turned into a shaded street on their way home. The air blew sharply up from the sea. Mrs. Shore buttoned her fur cape and quickened her pace. Maria, as usual, lagged a step behind her. Maria was a tall, willowy girl with delicate features and milk and rose tints in her skin. She had the conscious pose of the acknowledged beauty in a small town, for in her home, Ford City, Kansas, newspapers had ranked her with Helen of Troy and Recamier.[1] But her blue eyes were dull and evasive; she laughed at the end of every sentence, as if not sure of herself or her companion or of anything else.

When silent she always held her mouth a little open. John Shore had married her a year ago in Ford City and brought her home in triumph.

“Now, mother,” he said his round face red with delight, “you have a daughter at last!”

His mother looked at her and her heart stopped. It seemed for a minute as if cold water, instead of blood, rushed through her body. But she took the girl into her arms with some gay, loving words.

In this as in every emergency of life Frances Shore was sure to speak the right words.

More than that. She knew that she spoke them. She applauded herself secretly for her tact and nice feeling every hour of the day. Nobody ever saw a trace of vanity in the woman. But at heart she assuredly knew her own full value.

After that first day John always believed that his Maria was as dear to his mother as was his own stupid, honest self.

The two women had been together all day. The morning they had spent at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital. It was the only hospital in this little seaside town, of which the Shores were the founders and rulers. Mrs. Shore had given half of the money to build the hospital and had coaxed the rest from the New Jersey Legislature. It was as dear to her as one of her children. She had pled with men and prayed to God for it. Every day she carried provision, bandages, jam and linen to it. She knew every nurse and patient in the wards. She felt that it was she who had mothered it, and no Saint Elizabeth, living or dead.[2]

They had been shopping all afternoon, buying carpets, curtains and the like for Maria’s house, into which she had moved last week. Mrs. Shore was recklessly generous to her new daughter. But Maria’s thanks were brief. She yawned nervously, often. It sapped the strength out of her to be with Mrs. Shore all day. Her mind moved slowly, and for her to follow the older woman’s train of thought was like trying to catch heat lightning. Mrs. Shore’s brief, joking sentences to-day had flashed new meanings on every side; into the snarl in the hospital’s accounts, into the dyeing of carpets or the shape of the cabinet. At home Maria had always found her even more tiring. There was no subject on earth or out of it that the Shore men did not bring up to overhaul with Frances.

Now, Maria knew that in Ford City she had been reckoned at most intellectual woman. She was able and ready now to discuss all really important subjects: the work of her Chautauqua circle, the Duchess’s last novel, the new cut of sleeves.[3] She had closely observed since she married Doctor John the set to which the Shores belonged in Seaburgh. She knew all about their descent, income and clothes. Maria judged all human beings by these three essentials. She knew the genealogy of her own family, the Pynes, better than she did the Ten Commandments, and reckoned it a matter of much more importance. But the Shores cared for none of these things. At every meal they jerked her mind from the new star in Orion to yesterday’s doings in Parliament or the news from The Hague or U. C. P. preferred stock.[4]

Maria was shrewd enough to see that the Shore men—husband and sons—did not come to Frances for information on these matters, but for a mental tonic before they went out to the day’s work. They were of German descent (Deschauer used to be the name), sluggish, kindly, easy-going. Their mother every morning trimmed their lamps and put oil in them and lighted them for the day’s work. Maria’s little soul and trivial mind were nagged by the older woman’s strength. Why did John, now that he had a wife, go to his mother in every strait? Maria saw that there was nothing grave or judicial in Frances’s temper or mind. She laughed one minute and cried the next. Yet, today, everybody, from the car conductor to Judge Paxton, had come to her about their own private affairs, and last week, when Joe Potts shot his brother and that silly little Mrs. Clafton ran away from her husband, they both came to Mr. Shore in their horror of guilt, and Maria had to confess that she had helped them. Something went from her to them which put new life into them.

Maria, seeing that she gave out so much in her life to husband, children, drunkards and all the other silly, guilty folk who followed her, wondered how she could eat such hearty meals or laugh over stupid jokes. Maria had no sense of humor. She seldom laughed. She eyed the elder woman now with dislike and contempt. She was a bore, a nuisance!

The opinion of the little Western belle of her new kinsfolk would have amazed the Shores if they had known it. The cat on the rug may not understand a word you speak, yet her idea of your character is definite and clear.

Dr. John Shore met his mother and wife at the corner and took Maria home with him. She looked back with a frown at Mrs. Shore’s tall, slight figure as it passed under the trees.

“I tried to persuade your mother to buy some handsome ready-made costumes to-day.” she said. “Something to suit her position. There is nothing stylish in those plain dark gowns she wears.”

John lifted his eyeglasses and stared after his mother.

“Doesn’t she dress properly?” he said anxiously. “Oh, you must be mistaken, Molly. I never saw any woman with the peculiar air of distinction—of high breeding—that my mother has.”

“I am glad you are satisfied! Perhaps you would like me to give up my silks, and rig myself in coarse cloth?” snapped Maria.

“Oh, darling,—you—” The rest was whispered, and the pretty color and smile flashed back into her face.

But John was uneasy. “I’m afraid, Molly, you don’t appreciate mother,” he hesitated. “You mustn’t judge her by her clothes. You see she really made this family. My father often says that. Long ago, while we were little chaps, his health suddenly gave way—nerve prostration they would call it now—and she took hold of the business, and for five years she ran the mills. She bought this land here then, too, for a trifle, and laid out a village and induced her wealthy friends to build handsome villas and make Seaburgh the fashion. So, when my father came to himself, as one might say, he was a rich man and could give up work. Then she used to coach Bob and me at school, and pushed us into the business we were made for—Bob, the law, and me, medicine—when my father wanted us to keep in the mills. I ought to have told you the kind of woman she was before now,” he added in a deprecatory tone.

“Oh, it wasn’t necessary,” said Maria briskly, adjusting her veil. “I’ve always been considered a good judge of character. One sees at a glance that Mrs. Shore is a superior person. But in my opinion, a woman of her position should wear stylish clothes. When she does not she errs in taste. Of course, I may be wrong, John. I'm from the West, you know. None of the women of my family ever ran woolen mills or laid out towns, but they always understood society and costume. My mother was noted as the most elegant dresser in Kansas City. I must say that in my opinion Mrs. Shore is lacking in that very essential point, dear.”

“Yes, no doubt.” John stared about vaguely. “Yes, you might give her a hint Molly.”

They had come to the gate of their own house.

“Your mother,” said Maria, “has ordered vines to be set out in this front yard. She says it will look like a bower next summer. I’m not a bird! I don’t want to live in a bower. I want the sun pouring into every room.”

John looked at her anxiously. “We all think mother has such good taste—I don’t know, I’m sure—A bower—Well come in, dinner must be ready. Where's the boy?” he shouted up the stairs.

The nurse appeared, baby in arm.

“Where are his coral sleeve bands, Ann,” said Maria. “And his lace dress? Who put this wrapper and sacque on him?”[5]

“Mrs. Shore stopped on her way down street this morning,” said Ann pertly. “She said it was too damp for his neck and arms to be bare. He’d have croup. I supposed she knew.”

“Very well.” Maria swept into her own room with the child in her arms. She hugged him when she was alone until he screamed, her pale eyes flashing. “He’s my baby! This is my house!” she said. “I may not be a strong-minded woman, but I’ll not be trampled under foot any longer!”

John came in. “Fire going? I’m frozen to death. Dinner’s ready. Bless my soul, Molly, what’s the matter? You’ve been crying!”

“No, no; I’m just tired.” She laughed, dabbing her cheeks with the baby’s blanket. Maria loved her husband. She did not mean to worry him. She would put up with his mother’s meddling. She bathed her face, gave the boy to Ann, and went in to dinner, where she feigned an interest in the anti-toxin argument and laughed at John’s jokes in a way which was absolutely heroic.[6] For the limp belle of Ford City was human after all. Even the most boneless worm must have ground of its own in the universe in which to dig its hole.

Frances, meanwhile, had walked briskly homeward. The air was clear and frosty: through the windows of the comfortable dwellings which lined the street the red fire-light shone here and there, and savory scents of supper came out into the cold. Sometimes smiling faces appeared at the windows and a hand was waved to Frances who nodded back gayly and hurried on. The Shore homestead stood just where the street opened out upon the beach. Around it in an inclosure was a large tract of that ancient forest which edges the New Jersey coast. Its age is unknown. These low, brawny oaks and gnarled cedars were the first growth of the earth after Ocean County rose out of the sea. Their roots take hold of marl and the skeletons of fishes dead before the flood. It had been Frances who had fenced them in around her home. No royal park in England or France, she used to say, could boast of trees more ancient than these, or with as strange or significant a history. She knew and loved every one of them and she was sure they knew her and had their own opinions about her.

As she stood by the gate she struck the snow for the branches of one old cedar, gray bearded with lichen,[7] with soft, friendly blows and that sudden throb of happiness in her breast which comes all of us sometimes from strong vitality and sheer health of body and brain. She stopped a moment, looking down the beach. There had been a nor east storm and the surf rolled in heavily with sudden thunder. Red lights flamed up behind the hills in the west. She could have a happy half-hour on the beach before dinner alone and in quiet. There were dull souls who cared nothing for Nature. She thanked God that her soul was not that dull.

She turned to go down and then stopped, remembering that her husband would be alone, and that he liked that half-hour's gossip alone with her in the evening. She reminded herself that in the thirty years of her married life she had never once for her own comfort cheated him of a moment’s pleasure. She turned, but at the moment of the bells of St. John’s rang the Angelus.[8] Frances stood still. She felt that she was too really devout a woman to race along when the hearts of so many pious folks were lifted in prayer. As she waited she thought of that other woman called of God to give the world its helper, and of how as He suffered and died the sword had pierced her soul also.[9]

“Hail, Mary! Blessed art thou among women!” she said, the tears coming to her eyes.

When the bell ceased she still stood thinking. “I, too!” she muttered with a complacent smile. “I’ve done the best I could Lord.”

And her best had not been mean or despicable either, she thought. It had been no little thing to found this town, to nurse an unable, weak man, to make men of her boys, to run the mills—even the hospital was a monument to her ability and her generosity. Her life, she felt, had been able and helpful beyond that of most women—or men. It would really only be fair that there should be some recognition of it by Whoever rules things yonder, she though, looking confidently into the yellow sunset. Many people had some triumph in their old age—no doubt as a sign of God’s approval—great wealth or fame, or happiness came to them. Or they went out of life victoriously—Elijah was carried away in a chariot.[10] She walked on, half smiling, as she wondered in what way—long hence, in her extreme old age, as Death inevitably approached—God would signify His approval of her, so that everybody would know.

But she must go home and read the evening paper to Hugh.

As she walked across the beach she remembered the old fable of Juno when she took on the disguise of a peasant woman to do homely work for inferior creatures.[11]

There is no doubt that down in the secret depths of her soul Frances looked upon Hugh as an inferior. He had no vague longings for perfection; he was content to be dull and honest and kind. They had been children together; he had always loved her.

Once she had met the man who she knew was created to be her mate. He had passed out of her sight forever and had not claimed her. She had married Hugh Shore and given to him the last tithe of duty but she never had ceased to secretly pay homage to Garneaux in her soul and to wonder why he had not claimed her.

In the tension of her thoughts just now it flashed upon her that when he was leaving the world he would understand his need of her. He would call—and she would answer.

Yonder—and she looked in to the far retreating twilight—he would wait for her.

Then a strange thing happened.

The call came.

Not from the great revolting sea, nor the sunset, nor even the moaning wind. The whole matter was beyond words commonplace and small. She had turned into a street, and passing an alley, frowned as she noticed some tubs of garbage, when a chill lighter than a breath touched her chest. She stopped short, looking around. Then a voice, which she had not heard for thirty years, spoke quietly to her.

“Now!” it said; “Frances, now!”

* * * * *

When Mrs. Shore came to herself she was standing in the night far down the beach, calling again and again then name of a man. It was not that of her husband.

They had a family party at dinner that night, and waited a long time on Mrs. Shore. When she came in she was as exquisitely dressed and gay as usual. But there was a deadly pallor on her face.

Will, who was a keen-sighted fellow and his mother’s boy, took her aside.

“Something is wrong, he said. “What is it? Tell me, dear.”

“Nothing. I felt a little chill on the beach. It is nothing. Come here, Will.” She walked to the window and stood looking into the dark.

“What is it, mother?” He took her hand and stroked it gently.

“I want to talk to you about—Jeanie.”

He dropped her hand and drew back. “No, he said sternly. No; better not, mother. That’s over. I gave her up as you wished. I understand. It would never have done. It would have made you and father wretched. Her people are vulgar—impossible. She—But it doesn’t matter what she is. I've given her up.”

Mrs. Shore tried to smile gayly. “She is a good, innocent child and you love her. That is all we should have thought of. Never mind her people. Marry the woman you love, Will: I’ll straighten out the difficulty with your father. I’ll talk to you to-morrow. But—for God’s sake boy, marry the woman you love!”

A moment later she went to Hugh with a cup of hot coffee, giving him an affectionate pat on the shoulders. He nodded kindly.

Two weeks later Mrs. Shore brought Jeanie Wood home for a visit. Her engagement to Will had been announced. She was a pretty child with sincere, tender eyes, and Frances petted her as she never had Maria.

“I want to show you all my little ways of housekeeping,” she said to her one day— “the ways Mr. Shore and Will prefer, in case, when you come to us, I should go away—for a while.”

Jeanie smiled, with an anxious frown. That evening she asked Will: “Must we live here when we are married? I should not be afraid of your father. But Mrs. Shore—It would be like hobnobbing with Madame De Staël or an Empress—”[12]

Will stared at her. “Why, mother’s a real sport! There’s nobody I’m as intimate with. You don’t know her.”

But he was anxious after that. It might be better that he and Jeanie should go away. Mother certainly was peculiar, if you didn’t know her—

Mrs. Shore quietly made ready the house for the young couple. “Mr. Shore’s apartments,” she said to the upholsterer, “will not be altered. But I am going away, and you will refurnish my rooms for my son’s wife.”

She looked forward to this going away as to a great tragedy and triumph. Her husband watched silently. Did he suspect that Death had her by the hand, she asked herself sometimes, pacing up and down her room. Did he guess that she had been called by the man destined to be her master when life began?

Sometimes, looking about the room, she saw the thousand little trifles which Hugh had slowly gathered to make her life easy and pleasant. He had loved her greatly—in his way.

Then for a moment his way seemed the best and dearest thing on earth.

What could she do out yonder without Hugh?

But had she not been called?

The end came, suddenly.

Her brother George came down from New York bringing much gossip, political and literary. He was a very talkative man.

“This is a sad thing about Garneaux,” he said as they sat about the fire in the evening.

Hugh glanced quickly at his wife, but said nothing.

“A man so helpful to the world—a great scientist,” said George.

“Philip Garneaux is dead,” said Frances slowly, as if reciting a lesson. She rose pale and trembling. “He died on the tenth of this month at six o’clock in the evening. The angelus had just rung.”

“Dead? Not a bit of it!” said George with an unpleasant laugh. “Pity he hadn’t died. Everybody always knew Garneaux’s moral character was rotten to the core, but it has come out now that he was actually married to two women. He had to put off at night for Brazil or he would have gone to the penitentiary.”

Mrs. Shore sat down. She did not hear what it was they said. Hugh was silent. He looked at her furtively now and then. She knew that he did it. Did he understand? She had made a dream out of her own vanity and worshipped it all of her life, blind to the man—better than all men—who loved her. Her dream was a sham, God had given her a reality.

She went out of the room presently and did not come back that night.

Mrs. Shore made some changes the next day arranging that Will and his wife should go to a house of their own.

“Your father and I will need our home to ourselves,” she said to them.

“You are not going away as you said then?” asked Jeanie.

“No, not now,” she said.

After that the family vaguely felt that Frances had lost the backbone of her character. Her brother said bluntly that it was her conceit that was gone. Whatever it was, they loved her better without it. How much her husband knew of her real story she never could tell. She though his silence was heroic, and loved him more for it. She threw now all the longing and passion of her dreams into her love for him.

That is the way in which the real Frances Shore was born again to life. Not until middle age—old age sometimes—do we see the difference between our dreams and the realities which God gives us.

Philadelphia, PA

[1] In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world and the catalyst for the Trojan War. Récamier refers to Juliette Récamier (1777-1849), a famous French socialite also known for her great beauty.

[2] Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231), a Hungarian princess noted for her charity to the poor and sainted by the Catholic Church in 1235.

[3] Founded in 1874, the Chautauqua Movement began as a training program for Methodist Sunday School teachers. An offshoot of the larger movement, Chautauqua circles were women’s groups that became a forum for a variety of academic and cultural subjects. The Duchess may be a reference to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (1855-1897), an Irish novelist who published under the pen name “The Duchess” in the United States.

[4] The new star in Orion may refer to American astronomer Benjamin Gould’s (1824-1896) discovery of what is now called the Gould Belt in 1879; news from the Hague is likely a reference to the Hague Conventions, international peace conferences hosted in 1899 and 1907; commonly used in the railroad industry in the late nineteenth century, preferred stock refers to an ownership interest with priority over common stock.

[5] Loose-fitting garment for women and children.

[6] The anti-toxin argument refers to the late nineteenth-century debate about the use of anti-toxins to treat diphtheria; this treatment was likely used for the first time in the United States in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1894.

[7] A simple slow-growing plant that typically forms a low crust, leaflike, or branching growth on rocks, walls, and trees.

[8] The Angelus is a Catholic devotion commemorating the incarnation. The reading of this devotion is usually accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell, which is a call to prayer and to spread goodwill to everyone.

[9] See Luke 2:35: “(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

[10] See 2 Kings 2: 11 for an account of Elijah being taken to heaven in a chariot of fire.

[11] Juno is an ancient Roman goddess and wife to Jupiter. She is the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Hera.

[12] Anne Louise Germaine De Staël-Holstein (1766-1817) was a French woman of letters and political theorist. 


Laney Jolley Smith


Updated October 26, 2021


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Laney Jolley Smith, “"A Middle Aged Woman." The Independent, 1 September 1904, pp. 489-94.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed November 27, 2022, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/222.

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