Indeed, Claude put a great deal of time and thought upon the matter, and for the time being it seemed quite the most important thing in his life. He worked from an English translation of the Proces, but he kept the French text at his elbow, and some of her replies haunted him in the language in which they were spoken. It seemed to him that they were like the speech of her saints, of whom Jeanne said, "the voice is beautiful, sweet and low, and it speaks in the French tongue." Claude flattered himself that he had kept all personal feeling out of the paper; that it was a cold estimate of the girl's motives and character as indicated by the consistency and inconsistency of her replies; and of the change wrought in her by imprisonment and by "the fear of the fire."
When he had copied the last page of his manuscript and sat contemplating the pile of written sheets, he felt that after all his conscientious study he really knew very little more about the Maid of Orleans than when he first heard of her from his mother, one day when he was a little boy. He had been shut up in the house with a cold, he remembered, and he found a picture of her in armour, in an old book, and took it down to the kitchen where his mother was making apple pies. She glanced at the picture, and while she went on rolling out the dough and fitting it to the pans, she told him the story. He had forgotten what she said,—it must have been very fragmentary,—but from that time on he knew the essential facts about Joan of Arc, and she was a living figure in his mind. She seemed to him then as clear as now, and now as miraculous as then.
It was a curious thing, he reflected, that a character could perpetuate itself thus; by a picture, a word, a phrase, it could renew itself in every generation and be born over and over again in the minds of children. At that time he had never seen a map of France, and had a very poor opinion of any place farther away than Chicago; yet he was perfectly prepared for the legend of Joan of Arc, and often thought about her when he was bringing in his cobs in the evening, or when he was sent to the windmill for water and stood shaking in the cold while the chilled pump brought it slowly up. He pictured her then very much as he did now; about her figure there gathered a luminous cloud, like dust, with soldiers in it... the banner with lilies... a great church... cities with walls.
On this balmy spring afternoon, Claude felt softened and reconciled to the world. Like Gibbon, he was sorry to have finished his labour,—and he could not see anything else as interesting ahead. He must soon be going home now. There would be a few examinations to sit through at the Temple, a few more evenings with the Erlichs, trips to the Library to carry back the books he had been using,—and then he would suddenly find himself with nothing to do but take the train for Frankfort.
He rose with a sigh and began to fasten his history papers between covers. Glancing out of the window, he decided that he would walk into town and carry his thesis, which was due today; the weather was too fine to sit bumping in a street car. The truth was, he wished to prolong his relations with his manuscript as far as possible.
He struck off by the road,—it could scarcely be called a street, since it ran across raw prairie land where the buffalo-peas were in blossom. Claude walked slower than was his custom, his straw hat pushed back on his head and the blaze of the sun full in his face. His body felt light in the scented wind, and he listened drowsily to the larks, singing on dried weeds and sunflower stalks. At this season their song is almost painful to hear, it is so sweet. He sometimes thought of this walk long afterward; it was memorable to him, though he could not say why.
On reaching the University, he went directly to the Department of European History, where he was to leave his thesis on a long table, with a pile of others. He rather dreaded this, and was glad when, just as he entered, the Professor came out from his private office and took the bound manuscript into his own hands, nodding cordially.
"Your thesis? Oh yes, Jeanne d'Arc. The Proces. I had forgotten. Interesting material, isn't it?" He opened the cover and ran over the pages. "I suppose you acquitted her on the evidence?"
Claude blushed. "Yes, sir."
"Well, now you might read what Michelet has to say about her. There's an old translation in the Library. Did you enjoy working on it?"
"I did, very much." Claude wished to heaven he could think of something to say.
"You've got a good deal out of your course, altogether, haven't you? I'll be interested to see what you do next year. Your work has been very satisfactory to me." The Professor went back into his study, and Claude was pleased to see that he carried the manuscript with him and did not leave it on the table with the others.
Between haying and harvest that summer Ralph and Mr. Wheeler drove to Denver in the big car, leaving Claude and Dan to cultivate the corn. When they returned Mr. Wheeler announced that he had a secret. After several days of reticence, during which he shut himself up in the sitting-room writing letters, and passed mysterious words and winks with Ralph at table, he disclosed a project which swept away all Claude's plans and purposes.
On the return trip from Denver Mr. Wheeler had made a detour down into Yucca county, Colorado, to visit an old friend who was in difficulties. Tom Wested was a Maine man, from Wheeler's own neighbourhood. Several years ago he had lost his wife. Now his health had broken down, and the Denver doctors said he must retire from business and get into a low altitude. He wanted to go back to Maine and live among his own people, but was too much discouraged and frightened about his condition even to undertake the sale of his ranch and live stock. Mr. Wheeler had been able to help his friend, and at the same time did a good stroke of business for himself. He owned a farm in Maine, his share of his father's estate, which for years he had rented for little more than the up-keep. By making over this property, and assuming certain mortgages, he got Wested's fine, well-watered ranch in exchange. He paid him a good price for his cattle, and promised to take the sick man back to Maine and see him comfortably settled there. All this Mr. Wheeler explained to his family when he called them up to the living room one hot, breathless night after supper. Mrs. Wheeler, who seldom concerned herself with her husband's business affairs, asked absently why they bought more land, when they already had so much they could not farm half of it.
"Just like a woman, Evangeline, just like a woman!" Mr. Wheeler replied indulgently. He was sitting in the full glare of the acetylene lamp, his neckband open, his collar and tie on the table beside him, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan. "You might as well ask me why I want to make more money, when I haven't spent all I've got."
He intended, he said, to put Ralph on the Colorado ranch and "give the boy some responsibility." Ralph would have the help of Wested's foreman, an old hand in the cattle business, who had agreed to stay on under the new management. Mr. Wheeler assured his wife that he wasn't taking advantage of poor Wested; the timber on the Maine place was really worth a good deal of money; but because his father had always been so proud of his great pine woods, he had never, he said, just felt like turning a sawmill loose in them. Now he was trading a pleasant old farm that didn't bring in anything for a grama-grass ranch which ought to turn over a profit of ten or twelve thousand dollars in good cattle years, and wouldn't lose much in bad ones. He expected to spend about half his time out there with Ralph. "When I'm away," he remarked genially, "you and Mahailey won't have so much to do. You can devote yourselves to embroidery, so to speak."
"If Ralph is to live in Colorado, and you are to be away from home half of the time, I don't see what is to become of this place," murmured Mrs. Wheeler, still in the dark.
"Not necessary for you to see, Evangeline," her husband replied, stretching his big frame until the rocking chair creaked under him. "It will be Claude's business to look after that."
"Claude?" Mrs. Wheeler brushed a lock of hair back from her damp forehead in vague alarm.
"Of course." He looked with twinkling eyes at his son's straight, silent figure in the corner. "You've had about enough theology, I presume? No ambition to be a preacher? This winter I mean to turn the farm over to you and give you a chance to straighten things out. You've been dissatisfied with the way the place is run for some time, haven't you? Go ahead and put new blood into it. New ideas, if you want to; I've no objection. They're expensive, but let it go. You can fire Dan if you want, and get what help you need."
Claude felt as if a trap had been sprung on him. He shaded his eyes with his hand. "I don't think I'm competent to run the place right," he said unsteadily.
"Well, you don't think I am either, Claude, so we're up against it. It's always been my notion that the land was made for man, just as it's old Dawson's that man was created to work the land. I don't mind your siding with the Dawsons in this difference of opinion, if you can get their results."
Mrs. Wheeler rose and slipped quickly from the room, feeling her way down the dark staircase to the kitchen. It was dusky and quiet there. Mahailey sat in a corner, hemming dish-towels by the light of a smoky old brass lamp which was her own cherished luminary. Mrs. Wheeler walked up and down the long room in soft, silent agitation, both hands pressed tightly to her breast, where there was a physical ache of sympathy for Claude.
She remembered kind Tom Wested. He had stayed over night with them several times, and had come to them for consolation after his wife died. It seemed to her that his decline in health and loss of courage, Mr. Wheeler's fortuitous trip to Denver, the old pine-wood farm in Maine; were all things that fitted together and made a net to envelop her unfortunate son. She knew that he had been waiting impatiently for the autumn, and that for the first time he looked forward eagerly to going back to school. He was homesick for his friends, the Erlichs, and his mind was all the time upon the history course he meant to take.
Yet all this would weigh nothing in the family councils probably he would not even speak of it—and he had not one substantial objection to offer to his father's wishes. His disappointment would be bitter. "Why, it will almost break his heart," she murmured aloud. Mahailey was a little deaf and heard nothing. She sat holding her work up to the light, driving her needle with a big brass thimble, nodding with sleepiness between stitches. Though Mrs. Wheeler was scarcely conscious of it, the old woman's presence was a comfort to her, as she walked up and down with her drifting, uncertain step.
She had left the sitting-room because she was afraid Claude might get angry and say something hard to his father, and because she couldn't bear to see him hectored. Claude had always found life hard to live; he suffered so much over little things,-and she suffered with him. For herself, she never felt disappointments. Her husband's careless decisions did not disconcert her. If he declared that he would not plant a garden at all this year, she made no protest. It was Mahailey who grumbled. If he felt like eating roast beef and went out and killed a steer, she did the best she could to take care of the meat, and if some of it spoiled she tried not to worry. When she was not lost in religious meditation, she was likely to be thinking about some one of the old books she read over and over. Her personal life was so far removed from the scene of her daily activities that rash and violent men could not break in upon it. But where Claude was concerned, she lived on another plane, dropped into the lower air, tainted with human breath and pulsating with poor, blind, passionate human feelings.
It had always been so. And now, as she grew older, and her flesh had almost ceased to be concerned with pain or pleasure, like the wasted wax images in old churches, it still vibrated with his feelings and became quick again for him. His chagrins shrivelled her. When he was hurt and suffered silently, something ached in her. On the other hand, when he was happy, a wave of physical contentment went through her. If she wakened in the night and happened to think that he had been happy lately, she would lie softly and gratefully in her warm place.
"Rest, rest, perturbed spirit," she sometimes whispered to him in her mind, when she wakened thus and thought of him. There was a singular light in his eyes when he smiled at her on one of his good days, as if to tell her that all was well in his inner kingdom. She had seen that same look again and again, and she could always remember it in the dark,—a quick blue flash, tender and a little wild, as if he had seen a vision or glimpsed bright uncertainties.
The next few weeks were busy ones on the farm. Before the wheat harvest was over, Nat Wheeler packed his leather trunk, put on his "store clothes," and set off to take Tom Welted back to Maine. During his absence Ralph began to outfit for life in Yucca county. Ralph liked being a great man with the Frankfort merchants, and he had never before had such an opportunity as this. He bought a new shot gun, saddles, bridles, boots, long and short storm coats, a set of furniture for his own room, a fireless cooker, another music machine, and had them shipped to Colorado. His mother, who did not like phonograph music, and detested phonograph monologues, begged him to take the machine at home, but he assured her that she would be dull without it on winter evenings. He wanted one of the latest make, put out under the name of a great American inventor.
Some of the ranches near Wested's were owned by New York men who brought their families out there in the summer. Ralph had heard about the dances they gave, and he way counting on being one of the guests. He asked Claude to give him his dress suit, since Claude wouldn't be needing it any more.
"You can have it if you want it," said Claude indifferently "But it won't fit you."
"I'll take it in to Fritz and have the pants cut off a little and the shoulders taken in," his brother replied lightly.
Claude was impassive. "Go ahead. But if that old Dutch man takes a whack at it, it will look like the devil."
"I think I'll let him try. Father won't say anything about what I've ordered for the house, but he isn't much for glad rags, you know." Without more ado he threw Claude's black clothes into the back seat of the Ford and ran into town to enlist the services of the German tailor.
Mr. Wheeler, when he returned, thought Ralph had been rather free in expenditures, but Ralph told him it wouldn't do to take over the new place too modestly. "The ranchers out there are all high-fliers. If we go to squeezing nickels, they won't think we mean business."
The country neighbours, who were always amused at the Wheelers' doings, got almost as much pleasure out of Ralph's lavishness as he did himself. One said Ralph had shipped a new piano out to Yucca county, another heard he had ordered a billiard table. August Yoeder, their prosperous German neighbour, asked grimly whether he could, maybe, get a place as hired man with Ralph. Leonard Dawson, who was to be married in October, hailed Claude in town one day and shouted;
"My God, Claude, there's nothing left in the furniture store for me and Susie! Ralph's bought everything but the coffins. He must be going to live like a prince out there."
"I don't know anything about it," Claude answered coolly. "It's not my enterprise."
"No, you've got to stay on the old place and make it pay the debts, I understand." Leonard jumped into his car, so that Claude wouldn't have a chance to reply.
Mrs. Wheeler, too, when she observed the magnitude of these preparations, began to feel that the new arrangement was not fair to Claude, since he was the older boy and much the steadier. Claude had always worked hard when he was at home, and made a good field hand, while Ralph had never done much but tinker with machinery and run errands in his car. She couldn't understand why he was selected to manage an undertaking in which so much money was invested.
"Why, Claude," she said dreamily one day, "if your father were an older man, I would almost think his judgment had begun to fail. Won't we get dreadfully into debt at this rate?"
"Don't say anything, Mother. It's Father's money. He shan't think I want any of it."
"I wish I could talk to Bayliss. Has he said anything?"
"Not to me, he hasn't."
Ralph and Mr. Wheeler took another flying trip to Colorado, and when they came back Ralph began coaxing his mother to give him bedding and table linen. He said he wasn't going to live like a savage, even in the sand hills. Mahailey was outraged to see the linen she had washed and ironed and taken care of for so many years packed into boxes. She was out of temper most of the time now, and went about muttering to herself.
The only possessions Mahailey brought with her when she came to live with the Wheelers, were a feather bed and three patchwork quilts, interlined with wool off the backs of Virginia sheep, washed and carded by hand. The quilts had been made by her old mother, and given to her for a marriage portion. The patchwork on each was done in a different design; one was the popular "log-cabin" pattern, another the "laurel-leaf," the third the "blazing star." This quilt Mahailey thought too good for use, and she had told Mrs. Wheeler that she was saving it "to give Mr. Claude when he got married."
She slept on her feather bed in winter, and in summer she put it away in the attic. The attic was reached by a ladder which, because of her weak back, Mrs. Wheeler very seldom climbed. Up there Mahailey had things her own way, and thither she often retired to air the bedding stored away there, or to look at the pictures in the piles of old magazines. Ralph facetiously called the attic "Mahailey's library."
One day, while things were being packed for the western ranch, Mrs. Wheeler, going to the foot of the ladder to call Mahailey, narrowly escaped being knocked down by a large feather bed which came plumping through the trap door. A moment later Mahailey herself descended backwards, holding to the rungs with one hand, and in the other arm carrying her quilts.
"Why, Mahailey," gasped Mrs. Wheeler. "It's not winter yet; whatever are you getting your bed for?"
"I'm just a-goin' to lay on my fedder bed," she broke out, "or direc'ly I won't have none. I ain't a-goin' to have Mr. Ralph carryin' off my quilts my mudder pieced fur me."
Mrs. Wheeler tried to reason with her, but the old woman took up her bed in her arms and staggered down the hall with it, muttering and tossing her head like a horse in fly-time.
That afternoon Ralph brought a barrel and a bundle of straw into the kitchen and told Mahailey to carry up preserves and canned fruit, and he would pack them. She went obediently to the cellar, and Ralph took off his coat and began to line the barrel with straw. He was some time in doing this, but still Mahailey had not returned. He went to the head of the stairs and whistled.
"I'm a-comin', Mr. Ralph, I'm a-comin'! Don't hurry me, I don't want to break nothin'."
Ralph waited a few minutes. "What are you doing down there, Mahailey?" he fumed. "I could have emptied the whole cellar by this time. I suppose I'll have to do it myself."
"I'm a-comin'. You'd git yourself all dusty down here." She came breathlessly up the stairs, carrying a hamper basket full of jars, her hands and face streaked with black.
"Well, I should say it is dusty!" Ralph snorted. "You might clean your fruit closet once in awhile, you know, Mahailey. You ought to see how Mrs. Dawson keeps hers. Now, let's see." He sorted the jars on the table. "Take back the grape jelly. If there's anything I hate, it's grape jelly. I know you have lots of it, but you can't work it off on me. And when you come up, don't forget the pickled peaches. I told you particularly, the pickled peaches!"
"We ain't got no pickled peaches." Mahailey stood by the cellar door, holding a corner of her apron up to her chin, with a queer, animal look of stubbornness in her face.
"No pickled peaches? What nonsense, Mahailey! I saw you making them here, only a few weeks ago."
"I know you did, Mr. Ralph, but they ain't none now. I didn't have no luck with my peaches this year. I must 'a' let the air git at 'em. They all worked on me, an' I had to throw 'em out."
Ralph was thoroughly annoyed. "I never heard of such a thing, Mahailey! You get more careless every year. Think of wasting all that fruit and sugar! Does mother know?"
Mahailey's low brow clouded. "I reckon she does. I don't wase your mudder's sugar. I never did wase nothin'," she muttered. Her speech became queerer than ever when she was angry.
Ralph dashed down the cellar stairs, lit a lantern, and searched the fruit closet. Sure enough, there were no pickled peaches. When he came back and began packing his fruit, Mahailey stood watching him with a furtive expression, very much like the look that is in a chained coyote's eyes when a boy is showing him off to visitors and saying he wouldn't run away if he could.
"Go on with your work," Ralph snapped. "Don't stand there watching me!"
That evening Claude was sitting on the windmill platform, down by the barn, after a hard day's work ploughing for winter wheat. He was solacing himself with his pipe. No matter how much she loved him, or how sorry she felt for him, his mother could never bring herself to tell him he might smoke in the house. Lights were shining from the upstairs rooms on the hill, and through the open windows sounded the singing snarl of a phonograph. A figure came stealing down the path. He knew by her low, padding step that it was Mahailey, with her apron thrown over her head. She came up to him and touched him on the shoulder in a way which meant that what she had to say was confidential.
"Mr. Claude, Mr. Ralph's done packed up a barr'l of your mudder's jelly an' pickles to take out there."
"That's all right, Mahailey. Mr. Wested was a widower, and I guess there wasn't anything of that sort put up at his place."
She hesitated and bent lower. "He asked me fur them pickled peaches I made fur you, but I didn't give him none. I hid 'em all in my old cook-stove we done put down cellar when Mr. Ralph bought the new one. I didn't give him your mudder's new preserves, nudder. I give him the old last year's stuff we had left over, and now you an' your mudder'll have plenty." Claude laughed. "Oh, I don't care if Ralph takes all the fruit on the place, Mahailey!"
She shrank back a little, saying confusedly, "No, I know you don't, Mr. Claude. I know you don't."
"I surely ought not to take it out on her," Claude thought, when he saw her disappointment. He rose and patted her on the back. "That's all right, Mahailey. Thank you for saving the peaches, anyhow."
She shook her finger at him. "Don't you let on!"
He promised, and watched her slipping back over the zigzag path up the hill.
Ralph and his father moved to the new ranch the last of August, and Mr. Wheeler wrote back that late in the fall he meant to ship a carload of grass steers to the home farm to be fattened during the winter. This, Claude saw, would mean a need for fodder. There was a fifty-acre corn field west of the creek,—just on the sky-line when one looked out from the west windows of the house. Claude decided to put this field into winter wheat, and early in September he began to cut and bind the corn that stood upon it for fodder. As soon as the corn was gathered, he would plough up the ground, and drill in the wheat when he planted the other wheat fields.
This was Claude's first innovation, and it did not meet with approval. When Bayliss came out to spend Sunday with his mother, he asked her what Claude thought he was doing, anyhow. If he wanted to change the crop on that field, why didn't he plant oats in the spring, and then get into wheat next fall? Cutting fodder and preparing the ground now, would only hold him back in his work. When Mr. Wheeler came home for a short visit, he jocosely referred to that quarter as "Claude's wheat field."
Claude went ahead with what he had undertaken to do, but all through September he was nervous and apprehensive about the weather. Heavy rains, if they came, would make him late with his wheat-planting, and then there would certainly be criticism. In reality, nobody cared much whether the planting was late or not, but Claude thought they did, and sometimes in the morning he awoke in a state of panic because he wasn't getting ahead faster. He had Dan and one of August Yoeder's four sons to help him, and he worked early and late. The new field he ploughed and drilled himself. He put a great deal of young energy into it, and buried a great deal of discontent in its dark furrows. Day after day he flung himself upon the land and planted it with what was fermenting in him, glad to be so tired at night that he could not think.
Ralph came home for Leonard Dawson's wedding, on the first of October. All the Wheelers went to the wedding, even Mahailey, and there was a great gathering of the country folk and townsmen.
After Ralph left, Claude had the place to himself again, and the work went on as usual. The stock did well, and there were no vexatious interruptions. The fine weather held, and every morning when Claude got up, another gold day stretched before him like a glittering carpet, leading...? When the question where the days were leading struck him on the edge of his bed, he hurried to dress and get down-stairs in time to fetch wood and coal for Mahailey. They often reached the kitchen at the same moment, and she would shake her finger at him and say, "You come down to help me, you nice boy, you!" At least he was of some use to Mahailey. His father could hire one of the Yoeder boys to look after the place, but Mahailey wouldn't let any one else save her old back.
Mrs. Wheeler, as well as Mahailey, enjoyed that fall. She slept late in the morning, and read and rested in the afternoon. She made herself some new house-dresses out of a grey material Claude chose. "It's almost like being a bride, keeping house for just you, Claude," she sometimes said.
Soon Claude had the satisfaction of seeing a blush of green come up over his brown wheat fields, visible first in the dimples and little hollows, then flickering over the knobs and levels like a fugitive smile. He watched the green blades coming every day, when he and Dan went afield with their wagons to gather corn. Claude sent Dan to shuck on the north quarter, and he worked on the south. He always brought in one more load a day than Dan did,—that was to be expected. Dan explained this very reasonably, Claude thought, one afternoon when they were hooking up their teams.
"It's all right for you to jump at that corn like you was a-beating carpets, Claude; it's your corn, or anyways it's your Paw's. Them fields will always lay betwixt you and trouble. But a hired man's got no property but his back, and he has to save it. I figure that I've only got about so many jumps left in me, and I ain't a-going to jump too hard at no man's corn."
"What's the matter? I haven't been hinting that you ought to jump any harder, have I?"
"No, you ain't, but I just want you to know that there's reason in all things." With this Dan got into his wagon and drove off. He had probably been meditating upon this declaration for some time.
That afternoon Claude suddenly stopped flinging white ears into the wagon beside him. It was about five o'clock, the yellowest hour of the autumn day. He stood lost in a forest of light, dry, rustling corn leaves, quite hidden away from the world. Taking off his husking-gloves, he wiped the sweat from his face, climbed up to the wagon box, and lay down on the ivory-coloured corn. The horses cautiously advanced a step or two, and munched with great content at ears they tore from the stalks with their teeth.
Claude lay still, his arms under his head, looking up at the hard, polished blue sky, watching the flocks of crows go over from the fields where they fed on shattered grain, to their nests in the trees along Lovely Creek. He was thinking about what Dan had said while they were hitching up. There was a great deal of truth in it, certainly. Yet, as for him, he often felt that he would rather go out into the world and earn his bread among strangers than sweat under this half-responsibility for acres and crops that were not his own. He knew that his father was sometimes called a "land hog" by the country people, and he himself had begun to feel that it was not right they should have so much land,—to farm, or to rent, or to leave idle, as they chose. It was strange that in all the centuries the world had been going, the question of property had not been better adjusted. The people who had it were slaves to it, and the people who didn't have it were slaves to them.
He sprang down into the gold light to finish his load. Warm silence nestled over the cornfield. Sometimes a light breeze rose for a moment and rattled the stiff, dry leaves, and he himself made a great rustling and crackling as he tore the husks from the ears.
Greedy crows were still cawing about before they flapped homeward. When he drove out to the highway, the sun was going down, and from his seat on the load he could see far and near. Yonder was Dan's wagon, coming in from the north quarter; over there was the roof of Leonard Dawson's new house, and his windmill, standing up black in the declining day. Before him were the bluffs of the pasture, and the little trees, almost bare, huddled in violet shadow along the creek, and the Wheeler farm-house on the hill, its windows all aflame with the last red fire of the sun.
Claude dreaded the inactivity of the winter, to which the farmer usually looks forward with pleasure. He made the Thanksgiving football game a pretext for going up to Lincoln,—went intending to stay three days and stayed ten. The first night, when he knocked at the glass door of the Erlichs' sitting-room and took them by surprise, he thought he could never go back to the farm. Approaching the house on that clear, frosty autumn evening, crossing the lawn strewn with crackling dry leaves, he told himself that he must not hope to find things the same. But they were the same. The boys were lounging and smoking about the square table with the lamp on it, and Mrs. Erlich was at the piano, playing one of Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words." When he knocked, Otto opened the door and called:
"A surprise for you, Mother! Guess who's here."
What a welcome she gave him, and how much she had to tell him! While they were all talking at once, Henry, the oldest son, came downstairs dressed for a Colonial ball, with satin breeches and stockings and a sword. His brothers began to point out the inaccuracies of his costume, telling him that he couldn't possibly call himself a French emigre unless he wore a powdered wig. Henry took a book of memoirs from the shelf to prove to them that at the time when the French emigres were coming to Philadelphia, powder was going out of fashion.
During this discussion, Mrs. Erlich drew Claude aside and told him in excited whispers that her cousin Wilhelmina, the singer, had at last been relieved of the invalid husband whom she had supported for so many years, and now was going to marry her accompanist, a man much younger than herself.
After the French emigre had gone off to his party, two young instructors from the University dropped in, and Mrs. Erlich introduced Claude as her "landed proprietor" who managed a big ranch out in one of the western counties. The instructors took their leave early, but Claude stayed on. What was it that made life seem so much more interesting and attractive here than elsewhere? There was nothing wonderful about this room; a lot of books, a lamp... comfortable, hard-used furniture, some people whose lives were in no way remarkable—and yet he had the sense of being in a warm and gracious atmosphere, charged with generous enthusiasms and ennobled by romantic friendships. He was glad to see the same pictures on the wall; to find the Swiss wood-cutter on the mantel, still bending under his load of faggots; to handle again the heavy brass paper-knife that in its time had cut so many interesting pages. He picked it up from the cover of a red book lying there,-one of Trevelyan's volumes on Garibaldi, which Julius told him he must read before he was another week older.
The next afternoon Claude took Mrs. Erlich to the football game and came home with the family for dinner. He lingered on day after day, but after the first few evenings his heart was growing a little heavier all the time. The Erlich boys had so many new interests he couldn't keep up with them; they had been going on, and he had been standing still. He wasn't conceited enough to mind that. The thing that hurt was the feeling of being out of it, of being lost in another kind of life in which ideas played but little part. He was a stranger who walked in and sat down here; but he belonged out in the big, lonely country, where people worked hard with their backs and got tired like the horses, and were too sleepy at night to think of anything to say. If Mrs. Erlich and her Hungarian woman made lentil soup and potato dumplings and Wiener-Schnitzel for him, it only made the plain fare on the farm seem the heavier.
When the second Friday came round, he went to bid his friends good-bye and explained that he must be going home tomorrow. On leaving the house that night, he looked back at the ruddy windows and told himself that it was goodbye indeed, and not, as Mrs. Erlich had fondly said, auf wiedersehen. Coming here only made him more discontented with his lot; his frail claim on this kind of life existed no longer. He must settle down into something that was his own, take hold of it with both hands, no matter how grim it was. The next day, during his journey out through the bleak winter country, he felt that he was going deeper and deeper into reality.
Claude had not written when he would be home, but on Saturday there were always some of the neighbours in town. He rode out with one of the Yoeder boys, and from their place walked on the rest of the way. He told his mother he was glad to be back again. He sometimes felt as if it were disloyal to her for him to be so happy with Mrs. Erlich. His mother had been shut away from the world on a farm for so many years; and even before that, Vermont was no very stimulating place to grow up in, he guessed. She had not had a chance, any more than he had, at those things which make the mind more supple and keep the feeling young.
The next morning it was snowing outside, and they had a long, pleasant Sunday breakfast. Mrs. Wheeler said they wouldn't try to go to church, as Claude must be tired. He worked about the place until noon, making the stock comfortable and looking after things that Dan had neglected in his absence. After dinner he sat down at the secretary and wrote a long letter to his friends in Lincoln. Whenever he lifted his eyes for a moment, he saw the pasture bluffs and the softly falling snow. There was something beautiful about the submissive way in which the country met winter. It made one contented,—sad, too. He sealed his letter and lay down on the couch to read the paper, but was soon asleep.
When he awoke the afternoon was already far gone. The clock on the shelf ticked loudly in the still room, the coal stove sent out a warm glow. The blooming plants in the south bow-window looked brighter and fresher than usual in the soft white light that came up from the snow. Mrs. Wheeler was reading by the west window, looking away from her book now and then to gaze off at the grey sky and the muffled fields. The creek made a winding violet chasm down through the pasture, and the trees followed it in a black thicket, curiously tufted with snow. Claude lay for some time without speaking, watching his mother's profile against the glass, and thinking how good this soft, clinging snow-fall would be for his wheat fields.
"What are you reading, Mother?" he asked presently.
She turned her head toward him. "Nothing very new. I was just beginning 'Paradise Lost' again. I haven't read it for a long while."
"Read aloud, won't you? Just wherever you happen to be. I like the sound of it."
Mrs. Wheeler always read deliberately, giving each syllable its full value. Her voice, naturally soft and rather wistful, trailed over the long measures and the threatening Biblical names, all familiar to her and full of meaning.
"A dungeon horrible, on all sides round As one great furnace flamed; yet from the flames No light, but rather darkness visible Served only to discover sights of woe."
Her voice groped as if she were trying to realize something. The room was growing greyer as she read on through the turgid catalogue of the heathen gods, so packed with stories and pictures, so unaccountably glorious. At last the light failed, and Mrs. Wheeler closed the book.
"That's fine," Claude commented from the couch. "But Milton couldn't have got along without the wicked, could he?"
Mrs. Wheeler looked up. "Is that a joke?" she asked slyly.
"Oh no, not at all! It just struck me that this part is so much more interesting than the books about perfect innocence in Eden."
"And yet I suppose it shouldn't be so," Mrs. Wheeler said slowly, as if in doubt.
Her son laughed and sat up, smoothing his rumpled hair. "The fact remains that it is, dear Mother. And if you took all the great sinners out of the Bible, you'd take out all the interesting characters, wouldn't you?"
"Except Christ," she murmured.
"Yes, except Christ. But I suppose the Jews were honest when they thought him the most dangerous kind of criminal."
"Are you trying to tangle me up?" his mother inquired, with both reproach and amusement in her voice.
Claude went to the window where she was sitting, and looked out at the snowy fields, now becoming blue and desolate as the shadows deepened. "I only mean that even in the Bible the people who were merely free from blame didn't amount to much."
"Ah, I see!" Mrs. Wheeler chuckled softly. "You are trying to get me back to Faith and Works. There's where you always balked when you were a little fellow. Well, Claude, I don't know as much about it as I did then. As I get older, I leave a good deal more to God. I believe He wants to save whatever is noble in this world, and that He knows more ways of doing it than I." She rose like a gentle shadow and rubbed her cheek against his flannel shirt-sleeve, murmuring, "I believe He is sometimes where we would least expect to find Him,—even in proud, rebellious hearts."
For a moment they clung together in the pale, clear square of the west window, as the two natures in one person sometimes meet and cling in a fated hour.
Ralph and his father came home to spend the holidays, and on Christmas day Bayliss drove out from town for dinner. He arrived early, and after greeting his mother in the kitchen, went up to the sitting-room, which shone with a holiday neatness, and, for once, was warm enough for Bayliss,—having a low circulation, he felt the cold acutely. He walked up and down, jingling the keys in his pockets and admiring his mother's winter chrysanthemums, which were still blooming. Several times he paused before the old-fashioned secretary, looking through the glass doors at the volumes within. The sight of some of those books awoke disagreeable memories. When he was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, it used to make him bitterly jealous to hear his mother coaxing Claude to read aloud to her. Bayliss had never been bookish. Even before he could read, when his mother told him stories, he at once began to prove to her how they could not possibly be true. Later he found arithmetic and geography more interesting than "Robinson Crusoe." If he sat down with a book, he wanted to feel that he was learning something. His mother and Claude were always talking over his head about the people in books and stories.
Though Bayliss had a sentimental feeling about coming home, he considered that he had had a lonely boyhood. At the country school he had not been happy; he was the boy who always got the answers to the test problems when the others didn't, and he kept his arithmetic papers buttoned up in the inside pocket of his little jacket until he modestly handed them to the teacher, never giving a neighbour the benefit of his cleverness. Leonard Dawson and other lusty lads of his own age made life as terrifying for him as they could. In winter they used to throw him into a snow-drift, and then run away and leave him. In summer they made him eat live grasshoppers behind the schoolhouse, and put big bull-snakes in his dinner pail to surprise him. To this day, Bayliss liked to see one of those fellows get into difficulties that his big fists couldn't get him out of.
It was because Bayliss was quick at figures and undersized for a farmer that his father sent him to town to learn the implement business. From the day he went to work, he managed to live on his small salary. He kept in his vest pocket a little day-book wherein he noted down all his expenditures,—like the millionaire about whom the Baptist preachers were never tired of talking,-and his offering to the contribution box stood out conspicuous in his weekly account.
In Bayliss' voice, even when he used his insinuating drawl and said disagreeable things, there was something a little plaintive; the expression of a deep-seated sense of injury. He felt that he had always been misunderstood and underestimated. Later after he went into business for himself, the young men of Frankfort had never urged him to take part in their pleasures. He had not been asked to join the tennis club or the whist club. He envied Claude his fine physique and his unreckoning, impulsive vitality, as if they had been given to his brother by unfair means and should rightly have been his.
Bayliss and his father were talking together before dinner when Claude came in and was so inconsiderate as to put up a window, though he knew his brother hated a draft. In a moment Bayliss addressed him without looking at him:
"I see your friends, the Erlichs, have bought out the Jenkinson company, in Lincoln; at least, they've given their notes."
Claude had promised his mother to keep his temper today, "Yes, I saw it in the paper. I hope they'll succeed."
"I doubt it." Bayliss shook his head with his wisest look. "I understand they've put a mortgage on their home. That old woman will find herself without a roof one of these days."
"I don't think so. The boys have wanted to go into business together for a long while. They are all intelligent and industrious; why shouldn't they get on?" Claude flattered himself that he spoke in an easy, confidential way.
Bayliss screwed up his eyes. "I expect they're too fond of good living. They'll pay their interest, and spend whatever's left entertaining their friends. I didn't see the young fellow's name in the notice of incorporation, Julius, do they call him?"
"Julius is going abroad to study this fall. He intends to be a professor."
"What's the matter with him? Does he have poor health?"
At this moment the dinner bell sounded, Ralph ran down from his room where he had been dressing, and they all descended to the kitchen to greet the turkey. The dinner progressed pleasantly. Bayliss and his father talked politics, and Ralph told stories about his neighbours in Yucca county. Bayliss was pleased that his mother had remembered he liked oyster stuffing, and he complimented her upon her mince pies. When he saw her pour a second cup of coffee for herself and for Claude at the end of dinner, he said, in a gentle, grieved tone, "I'm sorry to see you taking two, Mother."
Mrs. Wheeler looked at him over the coffee-pot with a droll, guilty smile. "I don't believe coffee hurts me a particle, Bayliss."
"Of course it does; it's a stimulant." What worse could it be, his tone implied! When you said anything was a "stimulant," you had sufficiently condemned it; there was no more noxious word.
Claude was in the upper hall, putting on his coat to go down to the barn and smoke a cigar, when Bayliss came out from the sitting-room and detained him by an indefinite remark.
"I believe there's to be a musical show in Hastings Saturday night."
Claude said he had heard something of the sort.
"I was thinking," Bayliss affected a careless tone, as if he thought of such things every day, "that we might make a party and take Gladys and Enid. The roads are pretty good."
"It's a hard drive home, so late at night," Claude objected. Bayliss meant, of course, that Claude should drive the party up and back in Mr. Wheeler's big car. Bayliss never used his glistening Cadillac for long, rough drives.
"I guess Mother would put us up overnight, and we needn't take the girls home till Sunday morning. I'll get the tickets."
"You'd better arrange it with the girls, then. I'll drive you, of course, if you want to go."
Claude escaped and went out, wishing that Bayliss would do his own courting and not drag him into it. Bayliss, who didn't know one tune from another, certainly didn't want to go to this concert, and it was doubtful whether Enid Royce would care much about going. Gladys Farmer was the best musician in Frankfort, and she would probably like to hear it.
Claude and Gladys were old friends, from their High School days, though they hadn't seen much of each other while he was going to college. Several times this fall Bayliss had asked Claude to go somewhere with him on a Sunday, and then stopped to "pick Gladys up," as he said. Claude didn't like it. He was disgusted, anyhow, when he saw that Bayliss had made up his mind to marry Gladys. She and her mother were so poor that he would probably succeed in the end, though so far Gladys didn't seem to give him much encouragement. Marrying Bayliss, he thought, would be no joke for any woman, but Gladys was the one girl in town whom he particularly ought not to marry. She was as extravagant as she was poor. Though she taught in the Frankfort High School for twelve hundred a year, she had prettier clothes than any of the other girls, except Enid Royce, whose father was a rich man. Her new hats and suede shoes were discussed and criticized year in and year out. People said if she married Bayliss Wheeler, he would soon bring her down to hard facts. Some hoped she would, and some hoped she wouldn't. As for Claude, he had kept away from Mrs. Farmer's cheerful parlour ever since Bayliss had begun to drop in there. He was disappointed in Gladys. When he was offended, he seldom stopped to reason about his state of feeling. He avoided the person and the thought of the person, as if it were a sore spot in his mind.
It had been Mr. Wheeler's intention to stay at home until spring, but Ralph wrote that he was having trouble with his foreman, so his father went out to the ranch in February. A few days after his departure there was a storm which gave people something to talk about for a year to come.
The snow began to fall about noon on St. Valentine's day, a soft, thick, wet snow that came down in billows and stuck to everything. Later in the afternoon the wind rose, and wherever there was a shed, a tree, a hedge, or even a clump of tall weeds, drifts began to pile up. Mrs. Wheeler, looking anxiously out from the sitting-room windows, could see nothing but driving waves of soft white, which cut the tall house off from the rest of the world.
Claude and Dan, down in the corral, where they were provisioning the cattle against bad weather, found the air so thick that they could scarcely breathe; their ears and mouths and nostrils were full of snow, their faces plastered with it. It melted constantly upon their clothing, and yet they were white from their boots to their caps as they worked,—there was no shaking it off. The air was not cold, only a little below freezing. When they came in for supper, the drifts had piled against the house until they covered the lower sashes of the kitchen windows, and as they opened the door, a frail wall of snow fell in behind them. Mahailey came running with her broom and pail to sweep it up.
"Ain't it a turrible storm, Mr. Claude? I reckon poor Mr. Ernest won't git over tonight, will he? You never mind, honey; I'll wipe up that water. Run along and git dry clothes on you, an' take a bath, or you'll ketch cold. Th' ole tank's full of hot water for you." Exceptional weather of any kind always delighted Mahailey.
Mrs. Wheeler met Claude at the head of the stairs. "There's no danger of the steers getting snowed under along the creek, is there?" she asked anxiously.
"No, I thought of that. We've driven them all into the little corral on the level, and shut the gates. It's over my head down in the creek bottom now. I haven't a dry stitch on me. I guess I'll follow Mahailey's advice and get in the tub, if you can wait supper for me."
"Put your clothes outside the bathroom door, and I'll see to drying them for you."
"Yes, please. I'll need them tomorrow. I don't want to spoil my new corduroys. And, Mother, see if you can make Dan change. He's too wet and steamy to sit at the table with. Tell him if anybody has to go out after supper, I'll go."
Mrs. Wheeler hurried down stairs. Dan, she knew, would rather sit all evening in wet clothes than take the trouble to put on dry ones. He tried to sneak past her to his own quarters behind the wash-room, and looked aggrieved when he heard her message.
"I ain't got no other outside clothes, except my Sunday ones," he objected.
"Well, Claude says he'll go out if anybody has to. I guess you'll have to change for once, Dan, or go to bed without your supper." She laughed quietly at his dejected expression as he slunk away.
"Mrs. Wheeler," Mahailey whispered, "can't I run down to the cellar an' git some of them nice strawberry preserves? Mr. Claude, he loves 'em on his hot biscuit. He don't eat the honey no more; he's got tired of it."
"Very well. I'll make the coffee good and strong; that will please him more than anything."
Claude came down feeling clean and warm and hungry. As he opened the stair door he sniffed the coffee and frying ham, and when Mahailey bent over the oven the warm smell of browning biscuit rushed out with the heat. These combined odours somewhat dispersed Dan's gloom when he came back in squeaky Sunday shoes and a bunglesome cut-away coat. The latter was not required of him, but he wore it for revenge.
During supper Mrs. Wheeler told them once again how, long ago when she was first married, there were no roads or fences west of Frankfort. One winter night she sat on the roof of their first dugout nearly all night, holding up a lantern tied to a pole to guide Mr. Wheeler home through a snowstorm like this.
Mahailey, moving about the stove, watched over the group at the table. She liked to see the men fill themselves with food-though she did not count Dan a man, by any means, and she looked out to see that Mrs. Wheeler did not forget to eat altogether, as she was apt to do when she fell to remembering things that had happened long ago. Mahailey was in a happy frame of mind because her weather predictions had come true; only yesterday she had told Mrs. Wheeler there would be snow, because she had seen snowbirds. She regarded supper as more than usually important when Claude put on his "velvet close," as she called his brown corduroys.
After supper Claude lay on the couch in the sitting room, while his mother read aloud to him from "Bleak House,"—one of the few novels she loved. Poor Jo was drawing toward his end when Claude suddenly sat up. "Mother, I believe I'm too sleepy. I'll have to turn in. Do you suppose it's still snowing?"
He rose and went to look out, but the west windows were so plastered with snow that they were opaque. Even from the one on the south he could see nothing for a moment; then Mahailey must have carried her lamp to the kitchen window beneath, for all at once a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass. Claude struck the frozen window-frame with his fist, lifted the lower sash, and thrusting out his head tried to look abroad into the engulfed night. There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity. The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end. A faint purity, like a fragrance almost too fine for human senses, exhaled from them as they clustered about his head and shoulders. His mother, looking under his lifted arm, strained her eyes to see out into that swarming movement, and murmured softly in her quavering voice:
"Ever thicker, thicker, thicker, Froze the ice on lake and river; Ever deeper, deeper, deeper, Fell the snow o'er all the landscape."
Claude's bedroom faced the east. The next morning, when he looked out of his windows, only the tops of the cedars in the front yard were visible. Hurriedly putting on his clothes he ran to the west window at the end of the hall; Lovely Creek, and the deep ravine in which it flowed, had disappeared as if they had never been. The rough pasture was like a smooth field, except for humps and mounds like haycocks, where the snow had drifted over a post or a bush.
At the kitchen stairs Mahailey met him in gleeful excitement. "Lord 'a' mercy, Mr. Claude, I can't git the storm door open. We're snowed in fas'." She looked like a tramp woman, in a jacket patched with many colours, her head tied up in an old black "fascinator," with ravelled yarn hanging down over her face like wild locks of hair. She kept this costume for calamitous occasions; appeared in it when the water-pipes were frozen and burst, or when spring storms flooded the coops and drowned her young chickens.
The storm door opened outward. Claude put his shoulder to it and pushed it a little way. Then, with Mahailey's fireshovel he dislodged enough snow to enable him to force back the door. Dan came tramping in his stocking-feet across the kitchen to his boots, which were still drying behind the stove. "She's sure a bad one, Claude," he remarked, blinking.
"Yes. I guess we won't try to go out till after breakfast. We'll have to dig our way to the barn, and I never thought to bring the shovels up last night."
"Th' ole snow shovels is in the cellar. I'll git 'em."
"Not now, Mahailey. Give us our breakfast before you do anything else."
Mrs. Wheeler came down, pinning on her little shawl, her shoulders more bent than usual. "Claude," she said fearfully, "the cedars in the front yard are all but covered. Do you suppose our cattle could be buried?"
He laughed. "No, Mother. The cattle have been moving around all night, I expect."
When the two men started out with the wooden snow shovels, Mrs. Wheeler and Mahailey stood in the doorway, watching them. For a short distance from the house the path they dug was like a tunnel, and the white walls on either side were higher than their heads. On the breast of the hill the snow was not so deep, and they made better headway. They had to fight through a second heavy drift before they reached the barn, where they went in and warmed themselves among the horses and cows. Dan was for getting next a warm cow and beginning to milk.
"Not yet," said Claude. "I want to have a look at the hogs before we do anything here."
The hog-house was built down in a draw behind the barn. When Claude reached the edge of the gully, blown almost bare, he could look about him. The draw was full of snow, smooth... except in the middle, where there was a rumpled depression, resembling a great heap of tumbled bed-linen.
Dan gasped. "God a' mighty, Claude, the roof's fell in! Them hogs'll be smothered."
"They will if we don't get at them pretty quick. Run to the house and tell Mother. Mahailey will have to milk this morning, and get back here as fast as you can."
The roof was a flat thatch, and the weight of the snow had been too much for it. Claude wondered if he should have put on a new thatch that fall; but the old one wasn't leaky, and had seemed strong enough.
When Dan got back they took turns, one going ahead and throwing out as much snow as he could, the other handling the snow that fell back. After an hour or so of this work, Dan leaned on his shovel.
"We'll never do it, Claude. Two men couldn't throw all that snow out in a week. I'm about all in."
"Well, you can go back to the house and sit by the fire," Claude called fiercely. He had taken off his coat and was working in his shirt and sweater. The sweat was rolling from his face, his back and arms ached, and his hands, which he couldn't keep dry, were blistered. There were thirty-seven hogs in the hog-house.
Dan sat down in the hole. "Maybe if I could git a drink of water, I could hold on a-ways," he said dejectedly.
It was past noon when they got into the shed; a cloud of steam rose, and they heard grunts. They found the pigs all lying in a heap at one end, and pulled the top ones off alive and squealing. Twelve hogs, at the bottom of the pile, had been suffocated. They lay there wet and black in the snow, their bodies warm and smoking, but they were dead; there was no mistaking that.
Mrs. Wheeler, in her husband's rubber boots and an old overcoat, came down with Mahailey to view the scene of disaster.
"You ought to git right at them hawgs an' butcher 'em today," Mahailey called down to the men. She was standing on the edge of the draw, in her patched jacket and ravelled hood. Claude, down in the hole, brushed the sleeve of his sweater across his streaming face. "Butcher them?" he cried indignantly. "I wouldn't butcher them if I never saw meat again."
"You ain't a-goin' to let all that good hawg-meat go to wase, air you, Mr. Claude?" Mahailey pleaded. "They didn't have no sickness nor nuthin'. Only you'll have to git right at 'em, or the meat won't be healthy."
"It wouldn't be healthy for me, anyhow. I don't know what I will do with them, but I'm mighty sure I won't butcher them."
"Don't bother him, Mahailey," Mrs. Wheeler cautioned her. "He's tired, and he has to fix some place for the live hogs."
"I know he is, mam, but I could easy cut up one of them hawgs myself. I butchered my own little pig onct, in Virginia. I could save the hams, anyways, and the spare-ribs. We ain't had no spare-ribs for ever so long."
What with the ache in his back and his chagrin at losing the pigs, Claude was feeling desperate. "Mother," he shouted, "if you don't take Mahailey into the house, I'll go crazy!"
That evening Mrs. Wheeler asked him how much the twelve hogs would have been worth in money. He looked a little startled.
"Oh, I don't know exactly; three hundred dollars, anyway."
"Would it really be as much as that? I don't see how we could have prevented it, do you?" Her face looked troubled.
Claude went to bed immediately after supper, but he had no sooner stretched his aching body between the sheets than he began to feel wakeful. He was humiliated at losing the pigs, because they had been left in his charge; but for the loss in money, about which even his mother was grieved, he didn't seem to care. He wondered whether all that winter he hadn't been working himself up into a childish contempt for money-values.
When Ralph was home at Christmas time, he wore on his little finger a heavy gold ring, with a diamond as big as a pea, surrounded by showy grooves in the metal. He admitted to Claude that he had won it in a poker game. Ralph's hands were never free from automobile grease—they were the red, stumpy kind that couldn't be kept clean. Claude remembered him milking in the barn by lantern light, his jewel throwing off jabbing sparkles of colour, and his fingers looking very much like the teats of the cow. That picture rose before him now, as a symbol of what successful farming led to.
The farmer raised and took to market things with an intrinsic value; wheat and corn as good as could be grown anywhere in the world, hogs and cattle that were the best of their kind. In return he got manufactured articles of poor quality; showy furniture that went to pieces, carpets and draperies that faded, clothes that made a handsome man look like a clown. Most of his money was paid out for machinery,—and that, too, went to pieces. A steam thrasher didn't last long; a horse outlived three automobiles.
Claude felt sure that when he was a little boy and all the neighbours were poor, they and their houses and farms had more individuality. The farmers took time then to plant fine cottonwood groves on their places, and to set osage orange hedges along the borders of their fields. Now these trees were all being cut down and grubbed up. Just why, nobody knew; they impoverished the land... they made the snow drift... nobody had them any more. With prosperity came a kind of callousness; everybody wanted to destroy the old things they used to take pride in. The orchards, which had been nursed and tended so carefully twenty years ago, were now left to die of neglect. It was less trouble to run into town in an automobile and buy fruit than it was to raise it.
The people themselves had changed. He could remember when all the farmers in this community were friendly toward each other; now they were continually having lawsuits. Their sons were either stingy and grasping, or extravagant and lazy, and they were always stirring up trouble. Evidently, it took more intelligence to spend money than to make it.
When he pondered upon this conclusion, Claude thought of the Erlichs. Julius could go abroad and study for his doctor's degree, and live on less than Ralph wasted every year. Ralph would never have a profession or a trade, would never do or make anything the world needed.
Nor did Claude find his own outlook much better. He was twenty-one years old, and he had no skill, no training,—no ability that would ever take him among the kind of people he admired. He was a clumsy, awkward farmer boy, and even Mrs. Erlich seemed to think the farm the best place for him. Probably it was; but all the same he didn't find this kind of life worth the trouble of getting up every morning. He could not see the use of working for money, when money brought nothing one wanted. Mrs. Erlich said it brought security. Sometimes he thought this security was what was the matter with everybody; that only perfect safety was required to kill all the best qualities in people and develop the mean ones.
Ernest, too, said "it's the best life in the world, Claude."
But if you went to bed defeated every night, and dreaded to wake in the morning, then clearly it was too good a life for you. To be assured, at his age, of three meals a day and plenty of sleep, was like being assured of a decent burial. Safety, security; if you followed that reasoning out, then the unborn, those who would never be born, were the safest of all; nothing could happen to them.
Claude knew, and everybody else knew, seemingly, that there was something wrong with him. He had been unable to conceal his discontent. Mr. Wheeler was afraid he was one of those visionary fellows who make unnecessary difficulties for themselves and other people. Mrs. Wheeler thought the trouble with her son was that he had not yet found his Saviour. Bayliss was convinced that his brother was a moral rebel, that behind his reticence and his guarded manner he concealed the most dangerous opinions. The neighbours liked Claude, but they laughed at him, and said it was a good thing his father was well fixed. Claude was aware that his energy, instead of accomplishing something, was spent in resisting unalterable conditions, and in unavailing efforts to subdue his own nature. When he thought he had at last got himself in hand, a moment would undo the work of days; in a flash he would be transformed from a wooden post into a living boy. He would spring to his feet, turn over quickly in bed, or stop short in his walk, because the old belief flashed up in him with an intense kind of hope, an intense kind of pain,—the conviction that there was something splendid about life, if he could but find it.
The weather, after the big storm, behaved capriciously. There was a partial thaw which threatened to flood everything,—then a hard freeze. The whole country glittered with an icy crust, and people went about on a platform of frozen snow, quite above the level of ordinary life. Claude got out Mr. Wheeler's old double sleigh from the mass of heterogeneous objects that had for years lain on top of it, and brought the rusty sleighbells up to the house for Mahailey to scour with brick dust. Now that they had automobiles, most of the farmers had let their old sleighs go to pieces. But the Wheelers always kept everything.
Claude told his mother he meant to take Enid Royce for a sleigh-ride. Enid was the daughter of Jason Royce, the grain merchant, one of the early settlers, who for many years had run the only grist mill in Frankfort county. She and Claude were old playmates; he made a formal call at the millhouse, as it was called, every summer during his vacation, and often dropped in to see Mr. Royce at his town office.
Immediately after supper, Claude put the two wiry little blacks, Pompey and Satan, to the sleigh. The moon had been up since long before the sun went down, had been hanging pale in the sky most of the afternoon, and now it flooded the snow-terraced land with silver. It was one of those sparkling winter nights when a boy feels that though the world is very big, he himself is bigger; that under the whole crystalline blue sky there is no one quite so warm and sentient as himself, and that all this magnificence is for him. The sleighbells rang out with a kind of musical lightheartedness, as if they were glad to sing again, after the many winters they had hung rusty and dustchoked in the barn.
The mill road, that led off the highway and down to the river, had pleasant associations for Claude. When he was a youngster, every time his father went to mill, he begged to go along. He liked the mill and the miller and the miller's little girl. He had never liked the miller's house, however, and he was afraid of Enid's mother. Even now, as he tied his horses to the long hitch-bar down by the engine room, he resolved that he would not be persuaded to enter that formal parlour, full of new-looking, expensive furniture, where his energy always deserted him and he could never think of anything to talk about. If he moved, his shoes squeaked in the silence, and Mrs. Royce sat and blinked her sharp little eyes at him, and the longer he stayed, the harder it was to go.
Enid herself came to the door.
"Why, it's Claude!" she exclaimed. "Won't you come in?"
"No, I want you to go riding. I've got the old sleigh out. Come on, it's a fine night!"
"I thought I heard bells. Won't you come in and see Mother while I get my things on?"
Claude said he must stay with his horses, and ran back to the hitch-bar. Enid didn't keep him waiting long; she wasn't that kind. She came swiftly down the path and through the front gate in the Maine seal motor-coat she wore when she drove her coupe in cold weather.
"Now, which way?" Claude asked as the horses sprang forward and the bells began to jingle.
"Almost any way. What a beautiful night! And I love your bells, Claude. I haven't heard sleighbells since you used to bring me and Gladys home from school in stormy weather. Why don't we stop for her tonight? She has furs now, you know!" Here Enid laughed. "All the old ladies are so terribly puzzled about them; they can't find out whether your brother really gave them to her for Christmas or not. If they were sure she bought them for herself, I believe they'd hold a public meeting."
Claude cracked his whip over his eager little blacks. "Doesn't it make you tired, the way they are always nagging at Gladys?"
"It would, if she minded. But she's just as serene! They must have something to fuss about, and of course poor Mrs. Farmer's back taxes are piling up. I certainly suspect Bayliss of the furs."
Claude did not feel as eager to stop for Gladys as he had been a few moments before. They were approaching the town now, and lighted windows shone softly across the blue whiteness of the snow. Even in progressive Frankfort, the street lights were turned off on a night so glorious as this. Mrs. Farmer and her daughter had a little white cottage down in the south part of the town, where only people of modest means lived. "We must stop to see Gladys' mother, if only for a minute," Enid said as they drew up before the fence. "She is so fond of company." Claude tied his team to a tree, and they went up to the narrow, sloping porch, hung with vines that were full of frozen snow.
Mrs. Farmer met them; a large, rosy woman of fifty, with a pleasant Kentucky voice. She took Enid's arm affectionately, and Claude followed them into the long, low sitting-room, which had an uneven floor and a lamp at either end, and was scantily furnished in rickety mahogany. There, close beside the hard-coal burner, sat Bayliss Wheeler. He did not rise when they entered, but said, "Hello, folks," in a rather sheepish voice. On a little table, beside Mrs. Farmer's workbasket, was the box of candy he had lately taken out of his overcoat pocket, still tied up with its gold cord. A tall lamp stood beside the piano, where Gladys had evidently been practising. Claude wondered whether Bayliss actually pretended to an interest in music! At this moment Gladys was in the kitchen, Mrs. Farmer explained, looking for her mother's glasses, mislaid when she was copying a recipe for a cheese souffle.
"Are you still getting new recipes, Mrs. Farmer?" Enid asked her. "I thought you could make every dish in the world already."
"Oh, not quite!" Mrs. Farmer laughed modestly and showed that she liked compliments. "Do sit down, Claude," she besought of the stiff image by the door. "Daughter will be here directly."
At that moment Gladys Farmer appeared.
"Why, I didn't know you had company, Mother," she said, coming in to greet them.
This meant, Claude supposed, that Bayliss was not company. He scarcely glanced at Gladys as he took the hand she held out to him.
One of Gladys' grandfathers had come from Antwerp, and she had the settled composure, the full red lips, brown eyes, and dimpled white hands which occur so often in Flemish portraits of young women. Some people thought her a trifle heavy, too mature and positive to be called pretty, even though they admired her rich, tulip-like complexion. Gladys never seemed aware that her looks and her poverty and her extravagance were the subject of perpetual argument, but went to and from school every day with the air of one whose position is assured. Her musicianship gave her a kind of authority in Frankfort.
Enid explained the purpose of their call. "Claude has got out his old sleigh, and we've come to take you for a ride. Perhaps Bayliss will go, too?"
Bayliss said he guessed he would, though Claude knew there was nothing he hated so much as being out in the cold. Gladys ran upstairs to put on a warm dress, and Enid accompanied her, leaving Mrs. Farmer to make agreeable conversation between her two incompatible guests.
"Bayliss was just telling us how you lost your hogs in the storm, Claude. What a pity!" she said sympathetically.
Yes, Claude thought, Bayliss wouldn't be at all reticent about that incident!
"I suppose there was really no way to save them," Mrs. Farmer went on in her polite way; her voice was low and round, like her daughter's, different from the high, tight Western voice. "So I hope you don't let yourself worry about it."
"No, I don't worry about anything as dead as those hogs were. What's the use?" Claude asked boldly.
"That's right," murmured Mrs. Farmer, rocking a little in her chair. "Such things will happen sometimes, and we ought not to take them too hard. It isn't as if a person had been hurt, is it?"
Claude shook himself and tried to respond to her cordiality, and to the shabby comfort of her long parlour, so evidently doing its best to be attractive to her friends. There weren't four steady legs on any of the stuffed chairs or little folding tables she had brought up from the South, and the heavy gold moulding was half broken away from the oil portrait of her father, the judge. But she carried her poverty lightly, as Southern people did after the Civil War, and she didn't fret half so much about her back taxes as her neighbours did. Claude tried to talk agreeably to her, but he was distracted by the sound of stifled laughter upstairs. Probably Gladys and Enid were joking about Bayliss' being there. How shameless girls were, anyhow!
People came to their front windows to look out as the sleigh dashed jingling up and down the village streets. When they left town, Bayliss suggested that they drive out past the Trevor place. The girls began to talk about the two young New Englanders, Trevor and Brewster, who had lived there when Frankfort was still a tough little frontier settlement. Every one was talking about them now, for a few days ago word had come that one of the partners, Amos Brewster, had dropped dead in his law office in Hartford. It was thirty years since he and his friend, Bruce Trevor, had tried to be great cattle men in Frankfort county, and had built the house on the round hill east of the town, where they wasted a great deal of money very joyously. Claude's father always declared that the amount they squandered in carousing was negligible compared to their losses in commendable industrial endeavour. The country, Mr. Wheeler said, had never been the same since those boys left it. He delighted to tell about the time when Trevor and Brewster went into sheep. They imported a breeding ram from Scotland at a great expense, and when he arrived were so impatient to get the good of him that they turned him in with the ewes as soon as he was out of his crate. Consequently all the lambs were born at the wrong season; came at the beginning of March, in a blinding blizzard, and the mothers died from exposure. The gallant Trevor took horse and spurred all over the county, from one little settlement to another, buying up nursing bottles and nipples to feed the orphan lambs.
The rich bottom land about the Trevor place had been rented out to a truck gardener for years now; the comfortable house with its billiard-room annex—a wonder for that part of the country in its day—remained closed, its windows boarded up. It sat on the top of a round knoll, a fine cottonwood grove behind it. Tonight, as Claude drove toward it, the hill with its tall straight trees looked like a big fur cap put down on the snow.
"Why hasn't some one bought that house long ago and fixed it up?" Enid remarked. "There is no building site around here to compare with it. It looks like the place where the leading citizen of the town ought to live."
"I'm glad you like it, Enid," said Bayliss in a guarded voice. "I've always had a sneaking fancy for the place myself. Those fellows back there never wanted to sell it. But now the estate's got to be settled up. I bought it yesterday. The deed is on its way to Hartford for signature."
Enid turned round in her seat. "Why Bayliss, are you in earnest? Think of just buying the Trevor place off-hand, as if it were any ordinary piece of real estate! Will you make over the house, and live there some day?"
"I don't know about living there. It's too far to walk to my business, and the road across this bottom gets pretty muddy for a car in the spring."
"But it's not far, less than a mile. If I once owned that spot, I'd surely never let anybody else live there. Even Carrie remembers it. She often asks in her letters whether any one has bought the Trevor place yet."
Carrie Royce, Enid's older sister, was a missionary in China.
"Well," Bayliss admitted, "I didn't buy it for an investment, exactly. I paid all it was worth."
Enid turned to Gladys, who was apparently not listening. "You'd be the one who could plan a mansion for Trevor Hill, Gladys. You always have such original ideas about houses."
"Yes, people who have no houses of their own often seem to have ideas about building," said Gladys quietly. "But I like the Trevor place as it is. I hate to think that one of them is dead. People say they did have such good times up there."
Bayliss grunted. "Call it good times if you like. The kids were still grubbing whiskey bottles out of the cellar when I first came to town. Of course, if I decide to live there, I'll pull down that old trap and put up something modern." He often took this gruff tone with Gladys in public.
Enid tried to draw the driver into the conversation. "There seems to be a difference of opinion here, Claude."
"Oh," said Gladys carelessly, "it's Bayliss' property, or soon will be. He will build what he likes. I've always known somebody would get that place away from me, so I'm prepared."
"Get it away from you?" muttered Bayliss, amazed.
"Yes. As long as no one bought it and spoiled it, it was mine as much as it was anybody's."
"Claude," said Enid banteringly, "now both your brothers have houses. Where are you going to have yours?"
"I don't know that I'll ever have one. I think I'll run about the world a little before I draw my plans," he replied sarcastically.
"Take me with you, Claude!" said Gladys in a tone of sudden weariness. From that spiritless murmur Enid suspected that Bayliss had captured Gladys' hand under the buffalo robe.
Grimness had settled down over the sleighing party. Even Enid, who was not highly sensitive to unuttered feelings, saw that there was an uncomfortable constraint. A sharp wind had come up. Bayliss twice suggested turning back, but his brother answered, "Pretty soon," and drove on. He meant that Bayliss should have enough of it. Not until Enid whispered reproachfully, "I really think you ought to turn; we're all getting cold," did he realize that he had made his sleighing party into a punishment! There was certainly nothing to punish Enid for; she had done her best, and had tried to make his own bad manners less conspicuous. He muttered a blundering apology to her when he lifted her from the sleigh at the mill house. On his long drive home he had bitter thoughts for company.
He was so angry with Gladys that he hadn't been able to bid her good-night. Everything she said on the ride had nettled him. If she meant to marry Bayliss, then she ought to throw off this affectation of freedom and independence. If she did not mean to, why did she accept favours from him and let him get into the habit of walking into her house and putting his box of candy on the table, as all Frankfort fellows did when they were courting? Certainly she couldn't make herself believe that she liked his society!
When they were classmates at the Frankfort High School, Gladys was Claude's aesthetic proxy. It wasn't the proper thing for a boy to be too clean, or too careful about his dress and manners. But if he selected a girl who was irreproachable in these respects, got his Latin and did his laboratory work with her, then all her personal attractions redounded to his credit. Gladys had seemed to appreciate the honour Claude did her, and it was not all on her own account that she wore such beautifully ironed muslin dresses when they went on botanical expeditions.
Driving home after that miserable sleigh-ride, Claude told himself that in so far as Gladys was concerned he could make up his mind to the fact that he had been "stung" all along. He had believed in her fine feelings; believed implicitly. Now he knew she had none so fine that she couldn't pocket them when there was enough to be gained by it. Even while he said these things over and over, his old conception of Gladys, down at the bottom of his mind, remained persistently unchanged. But that only made his state of feeling the more painful. He was deeply hurt,—and for some reason, youth, when it is hurt, likes to feel itself betrayed.
Book Two: Enid
One afternoon that spring Claude was sitting on the long flight of granite steps that leads up to the State House in Denver. He had been looking at the collection of Cliff Dweller remains in the Capitol, and when he came out into the sunlight the faint smell of fresh-cut grass struck his nostrils and persuaded him to linger. The gardeners were giving the grounds their first light mowing. All the lawns on the hill were bright with daffodils and hyacinths. A sweet, warm wind blew over the grass, drying the waterdrops. There had been showers in the afternoon, and the sky was still a tender, rainy blue, where it showed through the masses of swiftly moving clouds.
Claude had been away from home for nearly a month. His father had sent him out to see Ralph and the new ranch, and from there he went on to Colorado Springs and Trinidad. He had enjoyed travelling, but now that he was back in Denver he had that feeling of loneliness which often overtakes country boys in a city; the feeling of being unrelated to anything, of not mattering to anybody. He had wandered about Colorado Springs wishing he knew some of the people who were going in and out of the houses; wishing that he could talk to some of those pretty girls he saw driving their own cars about the streets, if only to say a few words. One morning when he was walking out in the hills a girl passed him, then slowed her car to ask if she could give him a lift. Claude would have said that she was just the sort who would never stop to pick him up, yet she did, and she talked to him pleasantly all the way back to town. It was only twenty minutes or so, but it was worth everything else that happened on his trip. When she asked him where she should put him down, he said at the Antlers, and blushed so furiously that she must have known at once he wasn't staying there.
He wondered this afternoon how many discouraged young men had sat here on the State House steps and watched the sun go down behind the mountains. Every one was always saying it was a fine thing to be young; but it was a painful thing, too. He didn't believe older people were ever so wretched. Over there, in the golden light, the mass of mountains was splitting up into four distinct ranges, and as the sun dropped lower the peaks emerged in perspective, one behind the other. It was a lonely splendour that only made the ache in his breast the stronger. What was the matter with him, he asked himself entreatingly. He must answer that question before he went home again.