Summary of Chapter IV
Niel and Judge Pommeroy are the only townspeople invited to the Forresters’ for this evening. Captain Forrester meets the guests at the door. Constance Ogden is a pretty girl, but she ignores Niel’s attempts to entertain her. She has her eye on Frank Ellinger, a man old enough to be her father. Everyone drinks cocktails except Constance who is offered the cherry at the bottom of Frank’s glass. When Niel is told to offer his, he does, but Constance doesn’t eat it.
At dinner, Captain Forrester skillfully carves a turkey and serves everyone, impressive at the head of the table. His manners are old-fashioned but inspire confidence. When he gives his same toast every time, “Happy Days!” it makes Niel feel the precarious nature of life. Mrs. Ogden asks Captain Forrester to tell how he found this piece of land back in Indian days.
The Captain tells his story, how he came west after the Civil War, took a job as a freight driver across the plains from Nebraska City to Denver. He describes what the virgin plains were like. Once he came across this Indian encampment near Sweet Water and vowed to have a house there one day. He cut down a willow tree and drove a stake in the ground to mark the spot. After many years of building the railroad, he did not forget. He came back at times of discouragement and drove more stakes for the corners of the house. Twelve years later he brought his new bride, and they built the house.
Mrs. Forrester prompts him to add his philosophy of life, and he says, “what you think of and plan for day by day, in spite of yourself, so to speak—you will get” (p. 58). He explains that the West was developed from dreams. After dinner, the company plays whist, and Niel arranges it so Constance and Frank can be together. He plays with his uncle.
The company sings and has egg-nog, then depart. Mrs. Forrester reminds Niel he has to come the next day to entertain Constance. After everyone is in bed, Marian goes to the dining room where Frank is waiting for her with a drink. It is obvious they are intimate, but they are cautious. She warns that Constance may be lurking.
Commentary on Chapter IV
The tension of this chapter lies in the juxtaposition of the surface action and the implied emotion of certain characters running underneath. Captain Forrester’s honest hospitality commands the respect of Niel and the Ogdens and the Judge. But Frank Ellinger is an undermining force in this scene. He has two women after him, Constance and Marian. It is obvious from the clandestine intimacy between Frank and Marian after the others go to bed, that she had invited Niel to keep Constance busy and out of their hair. Constance is attracted to Frank and does not hide it. She eats the cherry at the bottom of Frank’s glass, but not Niel’s. This sexual symbolism is clear to everyone. Niel is irritated and actually throws Frank and Constance together, so he can stay clear of it.
Meanwhile, the Captain’s manners, his carving at table, his toast, his history—though part of the uninteresting dinner talk for the lovers—constitute the meat of the story for Niel. The Captain is not only a personal role model for the young man, he symbolizes the character it took to tame the West. Everything is endearing about him: “His clumsy dignity covered a deep nature, and a conscience that had never been juggled with. His repose was like that of a mountain” (p. 52).
This is the second time he has been compared to a mountain. It is men of giant stature who settled the West, and the Captain describes the beauty of the prairies and the philosophy it took to win the land: “a thing that is dreamed of . . . is already an accomplished fact. All our great West has been developed from such dreams . . . just as I dreamed my place on the Sweet Water” (p. 59). We learn that the Captain had a first wife who was something of a shrewish invalid, so the joy that Marian has given him is symbolized by the house itself and their life there.
Marian is the supportive wife and hostess while the company is there, but when she is with Frank, she turns into someone else. She is drawn to him like “magnetized iron” and her touch “went through the man” (p. 64). This is a different Marian Forrester from the one the Captain honors with diamonds as “worthy to wear them” (p. 55). The shock is not just that Marian is still young and takes a lover but that she has chosen someone as questionable as Frank Ellinger. It makes the whole thing even more sordid.
There is also tension for the reader in being let in on Marian’s fall before Niel finds out, for he idealizes the Forresters. The toast “Happy Days” seems to Niel “to knock at the door of Fate; behind which all days, happy and otherwise, were hidden” (p. 54). The Captain’s toast already hints of the loss to come.