Bedelia (novel) - Plot Summary

Plot Summary

33 year-old Charlie Horst comes from an old Puritan family which for centuries has been one of the pillars of society in an unnamed small town in Connecticut. Educated at Yale and now working as an architect, he has lived in a grand old house—his parental home—all his life. At the beginning of the novel his domineering mother has been dead for less than a year, and since her death Charlie has gone on a summer holiday to Colorado Springs, has met Bedelia Cochran there, a young childless widow of great beauty, has immediately fallen in love with her, brought her back home and married her.

Married life becomes Charlie Horst, so much so that on Christmas Day, 1913, he considers himself "the luckiest man in the world." Bedelia has turned out to be the perfect wife: exceedingly capable of running the household, a brilliant hostess, an obedient and submissive companion in need of protection by a strong man, imaginative, attractive, always well-dressed and well made-up, sexy, and good in bed. At their little Christmas party some of the town dignitaries are present, and everyone enjoys her ladylike ways. On top of it all, Bedelia is several months pregnant, turning Charlie into a proud father-to-be.

Among the guests at the Christmas party are his cousin Abbie Hoffman, a divorcee from New York; her friend Ellen Walker, a young journalist employed at the local paper who is still in love with Charlie although she has been rejected by him in favour of Bedelia; and Ben Chaney, a young painter who has recently arrived from nowhere and rented a cottage in the woods for the winter and who is increasingly regarded by Charlie as an intruder into his well-established circle of friends and acquaintances.

Then Charlie suddenly comes down with stomachache, and old Doctor Meyers, the Horsts' family physician, diagnoses a severe case of food poisoning. Charlie himself attributes his illness to overwork and brushes aside Doctor Meyers's suspicion that he may have been deliberately given poison as the ramblings of a senile quack who should have retired a long time ago. However, Doctor Meyers insists on a professional nurse being installed in the Horsts' home, and before her arrival at the house Chaney is seen meeting her at the railway station and talking agitatedly with her. Charlie is given strict orders not to eat or drink anything unless the nurse is present, and he gradually recovers.

At about the same time Ben Chaney discloses his true identity as a private investigator who has been hired to track down a serial widow whose previous husbands have all died ostensibly of natural causes and who is said to be living in this area under an assumed name. When Chaney announces the impending arrival of a relative of one of the deceased men who he claims will be able to recognize and identify Mrs Horst as that woman, Bedelia goes into the offensive and plans her disappearance—with or without her current husband. The witness's arrival is delayed due to a heavy snowstorm, which gives Bedelia more time to try to convince Charlie of her innocence and to talk him into leaving for Europe with her, a proposal which is met with utter disbelief and refusal on Charlie's part. In their snowbound house, Charlie's suspicion concerning his wife's past is steadily growing with each new life-story she serves him while he realizes that he still knows absolutely no hard facts about her former life.

During one of those cold and stormy nights Bedelia sneaks out of the house, leaving behind most of her personal belongings. However, being pregnant, she is too weak to make it to the station and is saved from certain death by freezing by Charlie, who finds her lying in the snow-covered road. As a consequence, she has to stay in bed with a severe cold for several days. Eventually the roads are cleared of snow, and the first vehicle to pull up in front of the Horsts' house is a delivery van with the groceries they have ordered by telephone. The delivery boy also leaves behind a large bag of food ordered by Ben Chaney to be fetched by the latter the moment he is no longer snowed in in his cottage. Shortly afterwards, Charlie chances upon Bedelia sprinkling some white powder on a piece of Gorgonzola taken from Chaney's bag of groceries, and is immediately reminded of a story he was told by Chaney about the death of one of Bedelia's former husbands. But only now that he has caught her in the act is he finally convinced of his wife's guilt and categorically resists all her attempts at making him an accessory after the fact.

She tried, courageously, to smile at Charlie. "You wouldn't let them take me away, would you? I'm your wife, you know, and I'm sick. I'm a very sick woman, your wife. I've never told you, dear, how sick I am. My heart, I might die at any moment. I must never be distressed about anything. I didn't ever tell you, Charlie, because I didn't want you to worry." This she said with a sort of determined gallantry, both sweet and bitter. Gently Charlie removed her hands. Bedelia submitted humbly, showing that she considered him superior, her lord and master. He was male and strong, she feminine and frail. His strength made him responsible for her; her life was in his hands.

Charlie locks Bedelia in the bedroom and then goes downstairs to greet the first guests to arrive after the snowstorm, among them Ellen Walker. While he is flirting with her, Bedelia is slowly dying upstairs after having obeyed her husband's order to take her own poison.

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