Summary of Chapter VI
This is the first winter Mrs. Forrester has spent completely at Sweet Water, and Niel comes to know her well. It is an “isthmus” for the Forresters and for Niel, a pause before great change for all of them. Niel is nineteen but will be twenty in the spring.
Three evenings a week, the Judge and Niel play whist with the Forresters. Niel had sworn he would be a bachelor but after the home comforts provided by Mrs. Forrester, he is spoiled. He finds conversation with Mrs. Forrester elating. She sometimes caricatures people to their faces. The Captain has a conservatory where he has bulbs of narcissus and hyacinth blooming in winter.
During a storm when the Forresters are snowed in, Niel brings their mail from the post office. The Captain is glad to see him. He says Mrs. Forrester is lying down from a headache. The Captain shows Niel his blooming flowers. Niel likes his pride in his home, as if to say “a man’s house is his castle” (p. 78).
Mrs. Forrester appears in a Japanese dressing gown with dark shadows under her eyes. When she passes by, Niel smells liquor on her breath. The Captain makes a point of asking her to get tea and toast for the guest, so she complies, while the Captain, pretending to read the paper, keeps an eye on her, happy when she does not bring out the sherry.
She asks if there is anything in the papers, and then makes fun of all the society folk mentioned. The Captain feels very relaxed hearing Niel and his wife chattering together, for he thinks of them as the same age, very young. When he dozes in his chair, she coaxes Niel to run down the hill in the snow.
As the sun is setting. Marian says to Niel, “Suppose we should have to stay here all next winter too!” (p. 82) He sees she is truly terrified of being buried alive at Sweet Water. She misses the dancing in Colorado. For a moment, he tries to step into a man’s shoes to reassure her, but she replies, “your shoulders aren’t broad enough” (p. 83). He realizes she is thinking of Frank’s shoulders. He understands that she flirts with Frank, but he admires her because she lives on the edge of convention. The fascination of Mrs. Forrester is that she contains “the magic of contradictions” (p. 84).
Commentary on Chapter VI
The tension continues to build in the Forrester marriage, though Niel is only vaguely aware of it. He loves the couple so much, and the comfort he feels in their home, that he only notes in passing the Captain is worried about Marian’s drinking and is keeping a fatherly eye on her. The Captain seems relieved to have Niel around, as though he is a reliable son. When he hears Marian and Niel chatting, he can relax, knowing Marian has company her own age.
Marian is becoming morbidly afraid of life passing her by. The Captain, however, is content with his home. He is always associated with flowers, particularly the roses that he grows. During the winter, he even makes flowers bloom in the house. Thus, though he ages, he is still a virile force of nature, particularly in Niel’s eyes, if not for his wife. We begin to see that the Captain is not as washed up and senile as some think. He has a feel for what goes on, though he is not good at expressing it. Flowers, jewels for his wife, taking care of his land—this is the way he speaks.
Niel is charmed by the conversation and wit of Marian, not so much in what she says, “but in the quick recognition in her eyes, in the living quality of her voice itself” (p. 75). In later days, he thinks “if he could hear that long-lost lady laugh again, he could be gay” (p. 77). With the insight that she might be thinking of Frank Ellinger, it comes to him that the charm of Marian for him is that she is Captain Forrester’s wife: “her comprehension of a man like the railroad-builder, her loyalty to him, stamped her more than anything else” (p. 84). He thinks of her loyalty to the Captain as like “steel of Damascus” (p. 84).
Niel has found substitute parents in the Forresters, and this explains many of his reactions to what unfolds for all of them. This chapter also initiates Niel’s continuing efforts to rescue Marian, to be a knight to her. She might be thinking of Frank as having broad shoulders, but Niel thinks of the Captain’s shoulders as those that are broad enough to be loyal to.