The statue of Kit Carson on horseback, down in the Square, pointed Westward; but there was no West, in that sense, any more. There was still South America; perhaps he could find something below the Isthmus. Here the sky was like a lid shut down over the world; his mother could see saints and martyrs behind it.
Well, in time he would get over all this, he supposed. Even his father had been restless as a young man, and had run away into a new country. It was a storm that died down at last,—but what a pity not to do anything with it! A waste of power—for it was a kind of power; he sprang to his feet and stood frowning against the ruddy light, so deep in his struggling thoughts that he did not notice a man, mounting from the lower terraces, who stopped to look at him.
The stranger scrutinized Claude with interest. He saw a young man standing bareheaded on the long flight of steps, his fists clenched in an attitude of arrested action,—his sandy hair, his tanned face, his tense figure copper-coloured in the oblique rays. Claude would have been astonished if he could have known how he seemed to this stranger.
The next morning Claude stepped off the train at Frankfort and had his breakfast at the station before the town was awake. His family were not expecting him, so he thought he would walk home and stop at the mill to see Enid Royce. After all, old friends were best.
He left town by the low road that wound along the creek. The willows were all out in new yellow leaves, and the sticky cotton-wood buds were on the point of bursting. Birds were calling everywhere, and now and then, through the studded willow wands, flashed the dazzling wing of a cardinal.
All over the dusty, tan-coloured wheatfields there was a tender mist of green,—millions of little fingers reaching up and waving lightly in the sun. To the north and south Claude could see the corn-planters, moving in straight lines over the brown acres where the earth had been harrowed so fine that it blew off in clouds of dust to the roadside. When a gust of wind rose, gay little twisters came across the open fields, corkscrews of powdered earth that whirled through the air and suddenly fell again. It seemed as if there were a lark on every fence post, singing for everything that was dumb; for the great ploughed lands, and the heavy horses in the rows, and the men guiding the horses.
Along the roadsides, from under the dead weeds and wisps of dried bluestem, the dandelions thrust up their clean, bright faces. If Claude happened to step on one, the acrid smell made him think of Mahailey, who had probably been out this very morning, gouging the sod with her broken butcher knife and stuffing dandelion greens into her apron. She always went for greens with an air of secrecy, very early, and sneaked along the roadsides stooping close to the ground, as if she might be detected and driven away, or as if the dandelions were wild things and had to be caught sleeping.
Claude was thinking, as he walked, of how he used to like to come to mill with his father. The whole process of milling was mysterious to him then; and the mill house and the miller's wife were mysterious; even Enid was, a little—until he got her down in the bright sun among the cat-tails. They used to play in the bins of clean wheat, watch the flour coming out of the hopper and get themselves covered with white dust.
Best of all he liked going in where the water-wheel hung dripping in its dark cave, and quivering streaks of sunlight came in through the cracks to play on the green slime and the spotted jewel-weed growing in the shale. The mill was a place of sharp contrasts; bright sun and deep shade, roaring sound and heavy, dripping silence. He remembered how astonished he was one day, when he found Mr. Royce in gloves and goggles, cleaning the millstones, and discovered what harmless looking things they were. The miller picked away at them with a sharp hammer until the sparks flew, and Claude still had on his hand a blue spot where a chip of flint went under the skin when he got too near.
Jason Royce must have kept his mill going out of sentiment, for there was not much money in it now. But milling had been his first business, and he had not found many things in life to be sentimental about. Sometimes one still came upon him in dusty miller's clothes, giving his man a day off. He had long ago ceased to depend on the risings and fallings of Lovely Creek for his power, and had put in a gasoline engine. The old dam now lay "like a holler tooth," as one of his men said, grown up with weeds and willow-brush.
Mr. Royce's family affairs had never gone as well as his business. He had not been blessed with a son, and out of five daughters he had succeeded in bringing up only two. People thought the mill house damp and unwholesome. Until he built a tenant's cottage and got a married man to take charge of the mill, Mr. Royce was never able to keep his millers long. They complained of the gloom of the house, and said they could not get enough to eat. Mrs. Royce went every summer to a vegetarian sanatorium in Michigan, where she learned to live on nuts and toasted cereals. She gave her family nourishment, to be sure, but there was never during the day a meal that a man could look forward to with pleasure, or sit down to with satisfaction. Mr. Royce usually dined at the hotel in town. Nevertheless, his wife was distinguished for certain brilliant culinary accomplishments. Her bread was faultless. When a church supper was toward, she was always called upon for her wonderful mayonnaise dressing, or her angel-food cake,—sure to be the lightest and spongiest in any assemblage of cakes.
A deep preoccupation about her health made Mrs. Royce like a woman who has a hidden grief, or is preyed upon by a consuming regret. It wrapped her in a kind of insensibility. She lived differently from other people, and that fact made her distrustful and reserved. Only when she was at the sanatorium, under the care of her idolized doctors, did she feel that she was understood and surrounded by sympathy.
Her distrust had communicated itself to her daughters and in countless little ways had coloured their feelings about life. They grew up under the shadow of being "different," and formed no close friendships. Gladys Farmer was the only Frankfort girl who had ever gone much to the mill house. Nobody was surprised when Caroline Royce, the older daughter, went out to China to be a missionary, or that her mother let her go without a protest. The Royce women were strange, anyhow, people said; with Carrie gone, they hoped Enid would grow up to be more like other folk. She dressed well, came to town often in her car, and was always ready to work for the church or the public library.
Besides, in Frankfort, Enid was thought very pretty,—in itself a humanizing attribute. She was slender, with a small, well-shaped head, a smooth, pale skin, and large, dark, opaque eyes with heavy lashes. The long line from the lobe of her ear to the tip of her chin gave her face a certain rigidity, but to the old ladies, who are the best critics in such matters, this meant firmness and dignity. She moved quickly and gracefully, just brushing things rather than touching them, so that there was a suggestion of flight about her slim figure, of gliding away from her surroundings. When the Sunday School gave tableaux vivants, Enid was chosen for Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii, and for the martyr in "Christ or Diana." The pallor of her skin, the submissive inclination of her forehead, and her dark, unchanging eyes, made one think of something "early Christian."
On this May morning when Claude Wheeler came striding up the mill road, Enid was in the yard, standing by a trellis for vines built near the fence, out from under the heavy shade of the trees. She was raking the earth that had been spaded up the day before, and making furrows in which to drop seeds. From the turn of the road, by the knotty old willows, Claude saw her pink starched dress and little white sun-bonnet. He hurried forward.
"Hello, are you farming?" he called as he came up to the fence.
Enid, who was bending over at that moment, rose quickly, but without a start. "Why, Claude! I thought you were out West somewhere. This is a surprise!" She brushed the earth from her hands and gave him her limp white fingers. Her arms, bare below the elbow, were thin, and looked cold, as if she had put on a summer dress too early.
"I just got back this morning. I'm walking out home. What are you planting?"
"You always have the finest ones in the country. When I see a bunch of yours at church or anywhere, I always know them."
"Yes, I'm quite successful with my sweet peas," she admitted. "The ground is rich down here, and they get plenty of sun."
"It isn't only your sweet peas. Nobody else has such lilacs or rambler roses, and I expect you have the only wistaria vine in Frankfort county."
"Mother planted that a long while ago, when she first moved here. She is very partial to wistaria. I'm afraid we'll lose it, one of these hard winters."
"Oh, that would be a shame! Take good care of it. You must put in a lot of time looking after these things, anyway." He spoke admiringly.
Enid leaned against the fence and pushed back her little bonnet. "Perhaps I take more interest in flowers than I do in people. I often envy you, Claude; you have so many interests."
He coloured. "I? Good gracious, I don't have many! I'm an awfully discontented sort of fellow. I didn't care about going to school until I had to stop, and then I was sore because I couldn't go back. I guess I've been sulking about it all winter."
She looked at him with quiet astonishment. "I don't see why you should be discontented; you're so free."
"Well, aren't you free, too?"
"Not to do what I want to. The only thing I really want to do is to go out to China and help Carrie in her work. Mother thinks I'm not strong enough. But Carrie was never very strong here. She is better in China, and I think I might be."
Claude felt concern. He had not seen Enid since the sleigh-ride, when she had been gayer than usual. Now she seemed sunk in lassitude. "You must get over such notions, Enid. You don't want to go wandering off alone like that. It makes people queer. Isn't there plenty of missionary work to be done right here?"
She sighed. "That's what everybody says. But we all of us have a chance, if we'll take it. Out there they haven't. It's terrible to think of all those millions that live and die in darkness."
Claude glanced up at the sombre mill house, hidden in cedars,—then off at the bright, dusty fields. He felt as if he were a little to blame for Enid's melancholy. He hadn't been very neighbourly this last year. "People can live in darkness here, too, unless they fight it. Look at me. I told you I've been moping all winter. We all feel friendly enough, but we go plodding on and never get together. You and I are old friends, and yet we hardly ever see each other. Mother says you've been promising for two years to run up and have a visit with her. Why don't you come? It would please her."
"Then I will. I've always been fond of your mother." She paused a moment, absently twisting the strings of her bonnet, then twitched it from her head with a quick movement and looked at him squarely in the bright light. "Claude, you haven't really become a free-thinker, have you?"
He laughed outright. "Why, what made you think I had?"
"Everybody knows Ernest Havel is, and people say you and he read that kind of books together."
"Has that got anything to do with our being friends?"
"Yes, it has. I couldn't feel the same confidence in you. I've worried about it a good deal."
"Well, you just cut it out. For one thing, I'm not worth it," he said quickly.
"Oh, yes, you are! If worrying would do any good—" she shook her head at him reproachfully.
Claude took hold of the fence pickets between them with both hands. "It will do good! Didn't I tell you there was missionary work to be done right here? Is that why you've been so stand-offish with me the last few years, because you thought I was an atheist?"
"I never, you know, liked Ernest Havel," she murmured.
When Claude left the mill and started homeward he felt that he had found something which would help him through the summer. How fortunate he had been to come upon Enid alone and talk to her without interruption,—without once seeing Mrs. Royce's face, always masked in powder, peering at him from behind a drawn blind. Mrs. Royce had always looked old, even long ago when she used to come into church with her little girls,—a tiny woman in tiny high-heeled shoes and a big hat with nodding plumes, her black dress covered with bugles and jet that glittered and rattled and made her seem hard on the outside, like an insect.
Yes, he must see to it that Enid went about and saw more of other people. She was too much with her mother, and with her own thoughts. Flowers and foreign missions—her garden and the great kingdom of China; there was something unusual and touching about her preoccupations. Something quite charming, too. Women ought to be religious; faith was the natural fragrance of their minds. The more incredible the things they believed, the more lovely was the act of belief. To him the story of "Paradise Lost" was as mythical as the "Odyssey"; yet when his mother read it aloud to him, it was not only beautiful but true. A woman who didn't have holy thoughts about mysterious things far away would be prosaic and commonplace, like a man.
During the next few weeks Claude often ran his car down to the mill house on a pleasant evening and coaxed Enid to go into Frankfort with him and sit through a moving picture show, or to drive to a neighbouring town. The advantage of this form of companionship was that it did not put too great a strain upon one's conversational powers. Enid could be admirably silent, and she was never embarrassed by either silence or speech. She was cool and sure of herself under any circumstances, and that was one reason why she drove a car so well,—much better than Claude, indeed.
One Sunday, when they met after church, she told Claude that she wanted to go to Hastings to do some shopping, and they arranged that he should take her on Tuesday in his father's big car. The town was about seventy miles to the northeast and, from Frankfort, it was an inconvenient trip by rail.
On Tuesday morning Claude reached the mill house just as the sun was rising over the damp fields. Enid was on the front porch waiting for him, wearing a blanket coat over her spring suit. She ran down to the gate and slipped into the seat beside him.
"Good morning, Claude. Nobody else is up. It's going to be a glorious day, isn't it?"
"Splendid. A little warm for this time of year. You won't need that coat long."
For the first hour they found the roads empty. All the fields were grey with dew, and the early sunlight burned over everything with the transparent brightness of a fire that has just been kindled. As the machine noiselessly wound off the miles, the sky grew deeper and bluer, and the flowers along the roadside opened in the wet grass. There were men and horses abroad on every hill now. Soon they began to pass children on the way to school, who stopped and waved their bright dinner pails at the two travellers. By ten o'clock they were in Hastings.
While Enid was shopping, Claude bought some white shoes and duck trousers. He felt more interest than usual in his summer clothes. They met at the hotel for lunch, both very hungry and both satisfied with their morning's work. Seated in the dining room, with Enid opposite him, Claude thought they did not look at all like a country boy and girl come to town, but like experienced people touring in their car.
"Will you make a call with me after dinner?" she asked while they were waiting for their dessert.
"Is it any one I know?"
"Certainly. Brother Weldon is in town. His meetings are over, and I was afraid he might be gone, but he is staying on a few days with Mrs. Gleason. I brought some of Carrie's letters along for him to read."
Claude made a wry face. "He won't be delighted to see me. We never got on well at school. He's a regular muff of a teacher, if you want to know," he added resolutely.
Enid studied him judicially. "I'm surprised to hear that; he's such a good speaker. You'd better come along. It's so foolish to have a coolness with your old teachers."
An hour later the Reverend Arthur Weldon received the two young people in Mrs. Gleason's half-darkened parlour, where he seemed quite as much at home as that lady herself. The hostess, after chatting cordially with the visitors for a few moments, excused herself to go to a P. E. O. meeting. Every one rose at her departure, and Mr. Weldon approached Enid, took her hand, and stood looking at her with his head inclined and his oblique smile. "This is an unexpected pleasure, to see you again, Miss Enid. And you, too, Claude," turning a little toward the latter. "You've come up from Frankfort together this beautiful day?" His tone seemed to say, "How lovely for you!"
He directed most of his remarks to Enid and, as always, avoided looking at Claude except when he definitely addressed him.
"You are farming this year, Claude? I presume that is a great satisfaction to your father. And Mrs. Wheeler is quite well?"
Mr. Weldon certainly bore no malice, but he always pronounced Claude's name exactly like the word "Clod," which annoyed him. To be sure, Enid pronounced his name in the same way, but either Claude did not notice this, or did not mind it from her. He sank into a deep, dark sofa, and sat with his driving cap on his knee while Brother Weldon drew a chair up to the one open window of the dusky room and began to read Carrie Royce's letters. Without being asked to do so, he read them aloud, and stopped to comment from time to time. Claude observed with disappointment that Enid drank in all his platitudes just as Mrs. Wheeler did. He had never looked at Weldon so long before. The light fell full on the young man's pear-shaped head and his thin, rippled hair. What in the world could sensible women like his mother and Enid Royce find to admire in this purring, white-necktied fellow? Enid's dark eyes rested upon him with an expression of profound respect. She both looked at him and spoke to him with more feeling than she ever showed toward Claude.
"You see, Brother Weldon," she said earnestly, "I am not naturally much drawn to people. I find it hard to take the proper interest in the church work at home. It seems as if I had always been holding myself in reserve for the foreign field,—by not making personal ties, I mean. If Gladys Farmer went to China, everybody would miss her. She could never be replaced in the High School. She has the kind of magnetism that draws people to her. But I have always been keeping myself free to do what Carrie is doing. There I know I could be of use."
Claude saw it was not easy for Enid to talk like this. Her face looked troubled, and her dark eyebrows came together in a sharp angle as she tried to tell the young preacher exactly what was going on in her mind. He listened with his habitual, smiling attention, smoothing the paper of the folded letter pages and murmuring, "Yes, I understand. Indeed, Miss Enid?"
When she pressed him for advice, he said it was not always easy to know in what field one could be most useful; perhaps this very restraint was giving her some spiritual discipline that she particularly needed. He was careful not to commit himself, not to advise anything unconditionally, except prayer.
"I believe that all things are made clear to us in prayer, Miss Enid."
Enid clasped her hands; her perplexity made her features look sharper. "But it is when I pray that I feel this call the strongest. It seems as if a finger were pointing me over there. Sometimes when I ask for guidance in little things, I get none, and only get the feeling that my work lies far away, and that for it, strength would be given me. Until I take that road, Christ withholds himself."
Mr. Weldon answered her in a tone of relief, as if something obscure had been made clear. "If that is the case, Miss Enid, I think we need have no anxiety. If the call recurs to you in prayer, and it is your Saviour's will, then we can be sure that the way and the means will be revealed. A passage from one of the Prophets occurs to me at this moment; 'And behold a way shall be opened up before thy feet; walk thou in it.' We might say that this promise was originally meant for Enid Royce! I believe God likes us to appropriate passages of His word personally." This last remark was made playfully, as if it were a kind of Christian Endeavour jest. He rose and handed Enid back the letters. Clearly, the interview was over.
As Enid drew on her gloves she told him that it had been a great help to talk to him, and that he always seemed to give her what she needed. Claude wondered what it was. He hadn't seen Weldon do anything but retreat before her eager questions. He, an "atheist," could have given her stronger reinforcement.
Claude's car stood under the maple trees in front of Mrs. Gleason's house. Before they got into it, he called Enid's attention to a mass of thunderheads in the west.
"That looks to me like a storm. It might be a wise thing to stay at the hotel tonight."
"Oh, no! I don't want to do that. I haven't come prepared."
He reminded her that it wouldn't be impossible to buy whatever she might need for the night.
"I don't like to stay in a strange place without my own things," she said decidedly.
"I'm afraid we'll be going straight into it. We may be in for something pretty rough,—but it's as you say." He still hesitated, with his hand on the door.
"I think we'd better try it," she said with quiet determination. Claude had not yet learned that Enid always opposed the unexpected, and could not bear to have her plans changed by people or circumstances.
For an hour he drove at his best speed, watching the clouds anxiously. The table-land, from horizon to horizon, was glowing in sunlight, and the sky itself seemed only the more brilliant for the mass of purple vapours rolling in the west, with bright edges, like new-cut lead. He had made fifty odd miles when the air suddenly grew cold, and in ten minutes the whole shining sky was blotted out. He sprang to the ground and began to jack up his wheels. As soon as a wheel left the earth, Enid adjusted the chain. Claude told her he had never got the chains on so quickly before. He covered the packages in the back seat with an oilcloth and drove forward to meet the storm.
The rain swept over them in waves, seemed to rise from the sod as well as to fall from the clouds. They made another five miles, ploughing through puddles and sliding over liquefied roads. Suddenly the heavy car, chains and all, bounded up a two-foot bank, shot over the sod a dozen yards before the brake caught it, then swung a half-circle and stood still. Enid sat calm and motionless.
Claude drew a long breath. "If that had happened on a culvert, we'd be in the ditch with the car on top of us. I simply can't control the thing. The whole top soil is loose, and there's nothing to hold to. That's Tommy Rice's place over there. We'd better get him to take us in for the night."
"But that would be worse than the hotel," Enid objected. "They are not very clean people, and there are a lot of children."
"Better be crowded than dead," he murmured. "From here on, it would be a matter of luck. We might land anywhere."
"We are only about ten miles from your place. I can stay with your mother tonight."
"It's too dangerous, Enid. I don't like the responsibility. Your father would blame me for taking such a chance."
"I know, it's on my account you're nervous." Enid spoke reasonably enough. "Do you mind letting me drive for awhile? There are only three bad hills left, and I think I can slide down them sideways; I've often tried it."
Claude got out and let her slip into his seat, but after she took the wheel he put his hand on her arm. "Don't do anything so foolish," he pleaded.
Enid smiled and shook her head. She was amiable, but inflexible.
He folded his arms. "Go on."
He was chafed by her stubbornness, but he had to admire her resourcefulness in handling the car. At the bottom of one of the worst hills was a new cement culvert, overlaid with liquid mud, where there was nothing for the chains to grip. The car slid to the edge of the culvert and stopped on the very brink. While they were ploughing up the other side of the hill, Enid remarked; "It's a good thing your starter works well; a little jar would have thrown us over."
They pulled up at the Wheeler farm just before dark, and Mrs. Wheeler came running out to meet them with a rubber coat over her head.
"You poor drowned children!" she cried, taking Enid in her arms. "How did you ever get home? I so hoped you had stayed in Hastings."
"It was Enid who got us home," Claude told her. "She's a dreadfully foolhardy girl, and somebody ought to shake her, but she's a fine driver."
Enid laughed as she brushed a wet lock back from her forehead. "You were right, of course; the sensible thing would have been to turn in at the Rice place; only I didn't want to."
Later in the evening Claude was glad they hadn't. It was pleasant to be at home and to see Enid at the supper table, sitting on his father's right and wearing one of his mother's new grey house-dresses. They would have had a dismal time at the Rices', with no beds to sleep in except such as were already occupied by Rice children. Enid had never slept in his mother's guest room before, and it pleased him to think how comfortable she would be there.
At an early hour Mrs. Wheeler took a candle to light her guest to bed; Enid passed near Claude's chair as she was leaving the room. "Have you forgiven me?" she asked teasingly.
"What made you so pig-headed? Did you want to frighten me? or to show me how well you could drive?"
"Neither. I wanted to get home. Good-night."
Claude settled back in his chair and shaded his eyes. She did feel that this was home, then. She had not been afraid of his father's jokes, or disconcerted by Mahailey's knowing grin. Her ease in the household gave him unaccountable pleasure. He picked up a book, but did not read. It was lying open on his knee when his mother came back half an hour later.
"Move quietly when you go upstairs, Claude. She is so tired that she may be asleep already."
He took off his shoes and made his ascent with the utmost caution.
Ernest Havel was cultivating his bright, glistening young cornfield one summer morning, whistling to himself an old German song which was somehow connected with a picture that rose in his memory. It was a picture of the earliest ploughing he could remember.
He saw a half-circle of green hills, with snow still lingering in the clefts of the higher ridges; behind the hills rose a wall of sharp mountains, covered with dark pine forests. In the meadows at the foot of that sweep of hills there was a winding creek, with polled willows in their first yellow-green, and brown fields. He himself was a little boy, playing by the creek and watching his father and mother plough with two great oxen, that had rope traces fastened to their heads and their long horns. His mother walked barefoot beside the oxen and led them; his father walked behind, guiding the plough. His father always looked down. His mother's face was almost as brown and furrowed as the fields, and her eyes were pale blue, like the skies of early spring. The two would go up and down thus all morning without speaking, except to the oxen. Ernest was the last of a long family, and as he played by the creek he used to wonder why his parents looked so old.
Leonard Dawson drove his car up to the fence and shouted, waking Ernest from his revery. He told his team to stand, and ran out to the edge of the field.
"Hello, Ernest," Leonard called. "Have you heard Claude Wheeler got hurt day before yesterday?"
"You don't say so! It can't be anything bad, or they'd let me know."
"Oh, it's nothing very bad, I guess, but he got his face scratched up in the wire quite a little. It was the queerest thing I ever saw. He was out with the team of mules and a heavy plough, working the road in that deep cut between their place and mine. The gasoline motor-truck came along, making more noise than usual, maybe. But those mules know a motor truck, and what they did was pure cussedness. They begun to rear and plunge in that deep cut. I was working my corn over in the field and shouted to the gasoline man to stop, but he didn't hear me. Claude jumped for the critters' heads and got 'em by the bits, but by that time he was all tangled up in the lines. Those damned mules lifted him off his feet and started to run. Down the draw and up the bank and across the fields they went, with that big plough-blade jumping three or four feet in the air every clip. I was sure it would cut one of the mules open, or go clean through Claude. It would have got him, too, if he hadn't kept his hold on the bits. They carried him right along, swinging in the air, and finally ran him into the barb-wire fence and cut his face and neck up."
"My goodness! Did he get cut bad?"
"No, not very, but yesterday morning he was out cultivating corn, all stuck up with court plaster. I knew that was a fool thing to do; a wire cut's nasty if you get overheated out in the dust. But you can't tell a Wheeler anything. Now they say his face has swelled and is hurting him terrible, and he's gone to town to see the doctor. You'd better go over there tonight, and see if you can make him take care of himself."
Leonard drove on, and Ernest went back to his team. "It's queer about that boy," he was thinking. "He's big and strong, and he's got an education and all that fine land, but he don't seem to fit in right." Sometimes Ernest thought his friend was unlucky. When that idea occurred to him, he sighed and shook it off. For Ernest believed there was no help for that; it was something rationalism did not explain.
The next afternoon Enid Royce's coupe drove up to the Wheeler farmyard. Mrs. Wheeler saw Enid get out of her car and came down the hill to meet her, breathless and distressed. "Oh, Enid! You've heard of Claude's accident? He wouldn't take care of himself, and now he's got erysipelas. He's in such pain, poor boy!"
Enid took her arm, and they started up the hill toward the house. "Can I see Claude, Mrs. Wheeler? I want to give him these flowers."
Mrs. Wheeler hesitated. "I don't know if he will let you come in, dear. I had hard work persuading him to see Ernest for a few moments last night. He seems so low-spirited, and he's sensitive about the way he's bandaged up. I'll go to his room and ask him."
"No, just let me go up with you, please. If I walk in with you, he won't have time to fret about it. I won't stay if he doesn't wish it, but I want to see him."
Mrs. Wheeler was alarmed at this suggestion, but Enid ignored her uncertainty. They went up to the third floor together, and Enid herself tapped at the door.
"It's I, Claude. May I come in for a moment?"
A muffled, reluctant voice answered. "No. They say this is catching, Enid. And anyhow, I'd rather you didn't see me like this."
Without waiting she pushed open the door. The dark blinds were down, and the room was full of a strong, bitter odor. Claude lay flat in bed, his head and face so smothered in surgical cotton that only his eyes and the tip of his nose were visible. The brown paste with which his features were smeared oozed out at the edges of the gauze and made his dressings look untidy. Enid took in these details at a glance.
"Does the light hurt your eyes? Let me put up one of the blinds for a moment, because I want you to see these flowers. I've brought you my first sweet peas."
Claude blinked at the bunch of bright colours she held out before him. She put them up to his face and asked him if he could smell them through his medicines. In a moment he ceased to feel embarrassed. His mother brought a glass bowl, and Enid arranged the flowers on the little table beside him.
"Now, do you want me to darken the room again?"
"Not yet. Sit down for a minute and talk to me. I can't say much because my face is stiff."
"I should think it would be! I met Leonard Dawson on the road yesterday, and he told me how you worked in the field after you were cut. I would like to scold you hard, Claude."
"Do. It might make me feel better." He took her hand and kept her beside him a moment. "Are those the sweet peas you were planting that day when I came back from the West?"
"Yes. Haven't they done well to blossom so early?"
"Less than two months. That's strange," he sighed.
"Oh, that a handful of seeds can make anything so pretty in a few weeks, and it takes a man so long to do anything and then it's not much account."
"That's not the way to look at things," she said reprovingly.
Enid sat prim and straight on a chair at the foot of his bed. Her flowered organdie dress was very much like the bouquet she had brought, and her floppy straw hat had a big lilac bow. She began to tell Claude about her father's several attacks of erysipelas. He listened but absently. He would never have believed that Enid, with her severe notions of decorum, would come into his room and sit with him like this. He noticed that his mother was quite as much astonished as he. She hovered about the visitor for a few moments, and then, seeing that Enid was quite at her ease, went downstairs to her work. Claude wished that Enid would not talk at all, but would sit there and let him look at her. The sunshine she had let into the room, and her tranquil, fragrant presence, soothed him. Presently he realized that she was asking him something.
"What is it, Enid? The medicine they give me makes me stupid. I don't catch things."
"I was asking whether you play chess."
"Father says I play passably well. When you are better you must let me bring up my ivory chessmen that Carrie sent me from China. They are beautifully carved. And now it's time for me to go."
She rose and patted his hand, telling him he must not be foolish about seeing people. "I didn't know you were so vain. Bandages are as becoming to you as they are to anybody. Shall I pull the dark blind again for you?"
"Yes, please. There won't be anything to look at now."
"Why, Claude, you are getting to be quite a ladies' man!"
Something in the way Enid said this made him wince a little. He felt his burning face grow a shade warmer. Even after she went downstairs he kept wishing she had not said that.
His mother came to give him his medicine. She stood beside him while he swallowed it. "Enid Royce is a real sensible girl—" she said as she took the glass. Her upward inflection expressed not conviction but bewilderment.
Enid came every afternoon, and Claude looked forward to her visits restlessly; they were the only pleasant things that happened to him, and made him forget the humiliation of his poisoned and disfigured face. He was disgusting to himself; when he touched the welts on his forehead and under his hair, he felt unclean and abject. At night, when his fever ran high, and the pain began to tighten in his head and neck, it wrought him to a distressing pitch of excitement. He fought with it as one bulldog fights with another. His mind prowled about among dark legends of torture,—everything he had ever read about the Inquisition, the rack and the wheel.
When Enid entered his room, cool and fresh in her pretty summer clothes, his mind leaped to meet her. He could not talk much, but he lay looking at her and breathing in a sweet contentment. After awhile he was well enough to sit up half-dressed in a steamer chair and play chess with her.
One afternoon they were by the west window in the sitting-room with the chess board between them, and Claude had to admit that he was beaten again.
"It must be dull for you, playing with me," he murmured, brushing the beads of sweat from his forehead. His face was clean now, so white that even his freckles had disappeared, and his hands were the soft, languid hands of a sick man.
"You will play better when you are stronger and can fix your mind on it," Enid assured him. She was puzzled because Claude, who had a good head for some things, had none at all for chess, and it was clear that he would never play well.
"Yes," he sighed, dropping back into his chair, "my wits do wander. Look at my wheatfield, over there on the skyline. Isn't it lovely? And now I won't be able to harvest it. Sometimes I wonder whether I'll ever finish anything I begin."
Enid put the chessmen back into their box. "Now that you are better, you must stop feeling blue. Father says that with your trouble people are always depressed."
Claude shook his head slowly, as it lay against the back of the chair. "No, it's not that. It's having so much time to think that makes me blue. You see, Enid, I've never yet done anything that gave me any satisfaction. I must be good for something. When I lie still and think, I wonder whether my life has been happening to me or to somebody else. It doesn't seem to have much connection with me. I haven't made much of a start."
"But you are not twenty-two yet. You have plenty of time to start. Is that what you are thinking about all the time!" She shook her finger at him.
"I think about two things all the time. That is one of them." Mrs. Wheeler came in with Claude's four o'clock milk; it was his first day downstairs.
When they were children, playing by the mill-dam, Claude had seen the future as a luminous vagueness in which he and Enid would always do things together. Then there came a time when he wanted to do everything with Ernest, when girls were disturbing and a bother, and he pushed all that into the distance, knowing that some day he must reckon with it again.
Now he told himself he had always known Enid would come back; and she had come on that afternoon when she entered his drug-smelling room and let in the sunlight. She would have done that for nobody but him. She was not a girl who would depart lightly from conventions that she recognized as authoritative. He remembered her as she used to march up to the platform for Children's Day exercises with the other little girls of the infant class; in her stiff white dress, never a curl awry or a wrinkle in her stocking, keeping her little comrades in order by the acquiescent gravity of her face, which seemed to say, "How pleasant it is to do thus and to do Right!"
Old Mr. Smith was the minister in those days,—a good man who had been much tossed about by a stormy and temperamental wife—and his eyes used to rest yearningly upon little Enid Royce, seeing in her the promise of "virtuous and comely Christian womanhood," to use one of his own phrases. Claude, in the boys' class across the aisle, used to tease her and try to distract her, but he respected her seriousness.
When they played together she was fair-minded, didn't whine if she got hurt, and never claimed a girl's exemption from anything unpleasant. She was calm, even on the day when she fell into the mill-dam and he fished her out; as soon as she stopped choking and coughing up muddy water, she wiped her face with her little drenched petticoats, and sat shivering and saying over and over, "Oh, Claude, Claude!" Incidents like that one now seemed to him significant and fateful.
When Claude's strength began to return to him, it came overwhelmingly. His blood seemed to grow strong while his body was still weak, so that the in-rush of vitality shook him. The desire to live again sang in his veins while his frame was unsteady. Waves of youth swept over him and left him exhausted. When Enid was with him these feelings were never so strong; her actual presence restored his equilibrium—almost. This fact did not perplex him; he fondly attributed it to something beautiful in the girl's nature,—a quality so lovely and subtle that there is no name for it.
During the first days of his recovery he did nothing but enjoy the creeping stir of life. Respiration was a soft physical pleasure. In the nights, so long he could not sleep them through, it was delightful to lie upon a cloud that floated lazily down the sky. In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.
Sometimes when Enid sat unsuspecting beside him, a quick blush swept across his face and he felt guilty toward her, meek and humble, as if he must beg her forgiveness for something. Often he was glad when she went away and left him alone to think about her. Her presence brought him sanity, and for that he ought to be grateful. When he was with her, he thought how she was to be the one who would put him right with the world and make him fit into the life about him. He had troubled his mother and disappointed his father, His marriage would be the first natural, dutiful, expected thing he had ever done. It would be the beginning of usefulness and content; as his mother's oft-repeated Psalm said, it would restore his soul. Enid's willingness to listen to him he could scarcely doubt. Her devotion to him during his illness was probably regarded by her friends as equivalent to an engagement.
Claude's first trip to Frankfort was to get his hair cut. After leaving the barber-shop he presented himself, glistening with bayrum, at Jason Royce's office. Mr. Royce, in the act of closing his safe, turned and took the young man by the hand.
"Hello, Claude, glad to see you around again! Sickness can't do much to a husky young farmer like you. With old fellows, it's another story. I'm just starting off to have a look at my alfalfa, south of the river. Get in and go along with me."
They went out to the open car that stood by the sidewalk, and when they were spinning along between fields of ripening grain Claude broke the silence. "I expect you know what I want to see you about, Mr. Royce?"
The older man shook his head. He had been preoccupied and grim ever since they started.
"Well," Claude went on modestly, "it oughtn't to surprise you to hear that I've set my heart on Enid. I haven't said anything to her yet, but if you're not against me, I'm going to try to persuade her to marry me."
"Marriage is a final sort of thing, Claude," said Mr. Royce. He sat slumping in his seat, watching the road ahead of him with intense abstraction, looking more gloomy and grizzled than usual. "Enid is a vegetarian, you know," he remarked unexpectedly.
Claude smiled. "That could hardly make any difference to me, Mr. Royce."
The other nodded slightly. "I know. At your age you think it doesn't. Such things do make a difference, however." His lips closed over his half-dead cigar, and for some time he did not open them.
"Enid is a good girl," he said at last. "Strictly speaking, she has more brains than a girl needs. If Mrs. Royce had another daughter at home, I'd take Enid into my office. She has good judgment. I don't know but she'd run a business better than a house." Having got this out, Mr. Royce relaxed his frown, took his cigar from his mouth, looked at it, and put it back between his teeth without relighting it.
Claude was watching him with surprise. "There's no question about Enid, Mr. Royce. I didn't come to ask you about her," he exclaimed. "I came to ask if you'd be willing to have me for a son-in-law. I know, and you know, that Enid could do a great deal better than to marry me. I surely haven't made much of a showing, so far."
"Here we are," announced Mr. Royce. "I'll leave the car under this elm, and we'll go up to the north end of the field and have a look."
They crawled under the wire fence and started across the rough ground through a field of purple blossoms. Clouds of yellow butterflies darted up before them. They walked jerkily, breaking through the sun-baked crust into the soft soil beneath. Mr. Royce lit a fresh cigar, and as he threw away the match let his hand drop on the young man's shoulder. "I always envied your father. You took my fancy when you were a little shaver, and I used to let you in to see the water-wheel. When I gave up water power and put in an engine, I said to myself: 'There's just one fellow in the country will be sorry to see the old wheel go, and that's Claude Wheeler.'"
"I hope you don't think I'm too young to marry," Claude said as they tramped on.
"No, it's right and proper a young man should marry. I don't say anything against marriage," Mr. Royce protested doggedly. "You may find some opposition in Enid's missionary motives. I don't know how she feels about that now. I don't enquire. I'd be pleased to see her get rid of such notions. They don't do a woman any good."
"I want to help her get rid of them. If it's all right with you, I hope I can persuade Enid to marry me this fall."
Jason Royce turned his head quickly toward his companion, studied his artless, hopeful countenance for a moment, and then looked away with a frown.
The alfalfa field sloped upward at one corner, lay like a bright green-and-purple handkerchief thrown down on the hillside. At the uppermost angle grew a slender young cottonwood, with leaves as light and agitated as the swarms of little butterflies that hovered above the clover. Mr. Royce made for this tree, took off his black coat, rolled it up, and sat down on it in the flickering shade. His shirt showed big blotches of moisture, and the sweat was rolling in clear drops along the creases in his brown neck. He sat with his hands clasped over his knees, his heels braced in the soft soil, and looked blankly off across the field. He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could ever come to share his secret, was to live. His strong yellow teeth closed tighter and tighter on the cigar, which had gone out like the first. He did not look at Claude, but while he watched the wind plough soft, flowery roads in the field, the boy's face was clearly before him, with its expression of reticent pride melting into the desire to please, and the slight stiffness of his shoulders, set in a kind of stubborn loyalty. Claude lay on the sod beside him, rather tired after his walk in the sun, a little melancholy, though he did not know why.
After a long while Mr. Royce unclasped his broad, thick-fingered miller's hands, and for a moment took out the macerated cigar. "Well, Claude," he said with determined cheerfulness, "we'll always be better friends than is common between father and son-in-law. You'll find out that pretty nearly everything you believe about life—about marriage, especially—is lies. I don't know why people prefer to live in that sort of a world, but they do."
After his interview with Mr. Royce, Claude drove directly to the mill house. As he came up the shady road, he saw with disappointment the flash of two white dresses instead of one, moving about in the sunny flower garden. The visitor was Gladys Farmer. This was her vacation time. She had walked out to the mill in the cool of the morning to spend the day with Enid. Now they were starting off to gather water-cresses, and had stopped in the garden to smell the heliotrope. On this scorching afternoon the purple sprays gave out a fragrance that hung over the flower-bed and brushed their cheeks like a warm breath. The girls looked up at the same moment and recognized Claude. They waved to him and hurried down to the gate to congratulate him on his recovery. He took their little tin pails and followed them around the old dam-head and up a sandy gorge, along a clear thread of water that trickled into Lovely Creek just above the mill. They came to the gravelly hill where the stream took its source from a spring hollowed out under the exposed roots of two elm trees. All about the spring, and in the sandy bed of the shallow creek, the cresses grew cool and green.
Gladys had strong feelings about places. She looked around her with satisfaction. "Of all the places where we used to play, Enid, this was my favourite," she declared.
"You girls sit up there on the elm roots," Claude suggested. "Wherever you put your foot in this soft gravel, water gathers. You'll spoil your white shoes. I'll get the cress for you."
"Stuff my pail as full as you can, then," Gladys called as they sat down. "I wonder why the Spanish dagger grows so thick on this hill, Enid? These plants were old and tough when we were little. I love it here."
She leaned back upon the hot, glistening hill-side. The sun came down in red rays through the elm-tops, and all the pebbles and bits of quartz glittered dazzlingly. Down in the stream bed the water, where it caught the light, twinkled like tarnished gold. Claude's sandy head and stooping shoulders were mottled with sunshine as they moved about over the green patches, and his duck trousers looked much whiter than they were. Gladys was too poor to travel, but she had the good fortune to be able to see a great deal within a few miles of Frankfort, and a warm imagination helped her to find life interesting. She did, as she confided to Enid, want to go to Colorado; she was ashamed of never having seen a mountain.
Presently Claude came up the bank with two shining, dripping pails. "Now may I sit down with you for a few minutes?"
Moving to make room for him beside her, Enid noticed that his thin face was heavily beaded with perspiration. His pocket handkerchief was wet and sandy, so she gave him her own, with a proprietary air. "Why, Claude, you look quite tired! Have you been over-doing? Where were you before you came here?"
"I was out in the country with your father, looking at his alfalfa."
"And he walked you all over the field in the hot sun, I suppose?"
Claude laughed. "He did."
"Well, I'll scold him tonight. You stay here and rest. I am going to drive Gladys home."
Gladys protested, but at last consented that they should both drive her home in Claude's car. They lingered awhile, however, listening to the soft, amiable bubbling of the spring; a wise, unobtrusive voice, murmuring night and day, continually telling the truth to people who could not understand it.
When they went back to the house Enid stopped long enough to cut a bunch of heliotrope for Mrs. Farmer,—though with the sinking of the sun its rich perfume had already vanished. They left Gladys and her flowers and cresses at the gate of the white cottage, now half hidden by gaudy trumpet vines.
Claude turned his car and went back along the dim, twilight road with Enid. "I usually like to see Gladys, but when I found her with you this afternoon, I was terribly disappointed for a minute. I'd just been talking with your father, and I wanted to come straight to you. Do you think you could marry me, Enid?"
"I don't believe it would be for the best, Claude." She spoke sadly.
He took her passive hand. "Why not?"
"My mind is full of other plans. Marriage is for most girls, but not for all."
Enid had taken off her hat. In the low evening light Claude studied her pale face under her brown hair. There was something graceful and charming about the way she held her head, something that suggested both submissiveness and great firmness. "I've had those far-away dreams, too, Enid; but now my thoughts don't get any further than you. If you could care ever so little for me to start on, I'd be willing to risk the rest." She sighed. "You know I care for you. I've never made any secret of it. But we're happy as we are, aren't we?"
"No, I'm not. I've got to have some life of my own, or I'll go to pieces. If you won't have me, I'll try South America,—and I won't come back until I am an old man and you are an old woman."
Enid looked at him, and they both smiled.
The mill house was black except for a light in one upstairs window. Claude sprang out of his car and lifted Enid gently to the ground. She let him kiss her soft cool mouth, and her long lashes. In the pale, dusty dusk, lit only by a few white stars, and with the chill of the creek already in the air, she seemed to Claude like a shivering little ghost come up from the rushes where the old mill-dam used to be. A terrible melancholy clutched at the boy's heart. He hadn't thought it would be like this. He drove home feeling weak and broken. Was there nothing in the world outside to answer to his own feelings, and was every turn to be fresh disappointment? Why was life so mysteriously hard? This country itself was sad, he thought, looking about him,-and you could no more change that than you could change the story in an unhappy human face. He wished to God he were sick again; the world was too rough a place to get about in.
There was one person in the world who felt sorry for Claude that night. Gladys Farmer sat at her bedroom window for a long while, watching the stars and thinking about what she had seen plainly enough that afternoon. She had liked Enid ever since they were little girls,—and knew all there was to know about her. Claude would become one of those dead people that moved about the streets of Frankfort; everything that was Claude would perish, and the shell of him would come and go and eat and sleep for fifty years. Gladys had taught the children of many such dead men. She had worked out a misty philosophy for herself, full of strong convictions and confused figures. She believed that all things which might make the world beautiful—love and kindness, leisure and art—were shut up in prison, and that successful men like Bayliss Wheeler held the keys. The generous ones, who would let these things out to make people happy, were somehow weak, and could not break the bars. Even her own little life was squeezed into an unnatural shape by the domination of people like Bayliss. She had not dared, for instance, to go to Omaha that spring for the three performances of the Chicago Opera Company. Such an extravagance would have aroused a corrective spirit in all her friends, and in the schoolboard as well; they would probably have decided not to give her the little increase in salary she counted upon having next year.
There were people, even in Frankfort, who had imagination and generous impulses, but they were all, she had to admit, inefficient—failures. There was Miss Livingstone, the fiery, emotional old maid who couldn't tell the truth; old Mr. Smith, a lawyer without clients, who read Shakespeare and Dryden all day long in his dusty office; Bobbie Jones, the effeminate drug clerk, who wrote free verse and "movie" scenarios, and tended the sodawater fountain.
Claude was her one hope. Ever since they graduated from High School, all through the four years she had been teaching, she had waited to see him emerge and prove himself. She wanted him to be more successful than Bayliss AND STILL BE CLAUDE. She would have made any sacrifice to help him on. If a strong boy like Claude, so well endowed and so fearless, must fail, simply because he had that finer strain in his nature,—then life was not worth the chagrin it held for a passionate heart like hers.
At last Gladys threw herself upon the bed. If he married Enid, that would be the end. He would go about strong and heavy, like Mr. Royce; a big machine with the springs broken inside.
Claude was well enough to go into the fields before the harvest was over. The middle of July came, and the farmers were still cutting grain. The yield of wheat and oats was so heavy that there were not machines enough to thrash it within the usual time. Men had to await their turn, letting their grain stand in shock until a belching black engine lumbered into the field. Rains would have been disastrous; but this was one of those "good years" which farmers tell about, when everything goes well. At the time they needed rain, there was plenty of it; and now the days were miracles of dry, glittering heat.
Every morning the sun came up a red ball, quickly drank the dew, and started a quivering excitement in all living things. In great harvest seasons like that one, the heat, the intense light, and the important work in hand draw people together and make them friendly. Neighbours helped each other to cope with the burdensome abundance of man-nourishing grain; women and children and old men fell to and did what they could to save and house it. Even the horses had a more varied and sociable existence than usual, going about from one farm to another to help neighbour horses drag wagons and binders and headers. They nosed the colts of old friends, ate out of strange mangers, and drank, or refused to drink, out of strange water-troughs. Decrepit horses that lived on a pension, like the Wheelers' stiff-legged Molly and Leonard Dawson's Billy with the heaves—his asthmatic cough could be heard for a quarter of a mile—were pressed into service now. It was wonderful, too, how well these invalided beasts managed to keep up with the strong young mares and geldings; they bent their willing heads and pulled as if the chafing of the collar on their necks was sweet to them.
The sun was like a great visiting presence that stimulated and took its due from all animal energy. When it flung wide its cloak and stepped down over the edge of the fields at evening, it left behind it a spent and exhausted world. Horses and men and women grew thin, seethed all day in their own sweat. After supper they dropped over and slept anywhere at all, until the red dawn broke clear in the east again, like the fanfare of trumpets, and nerves and muscles began to quiver with the solar heat.
For several weeks Claude did not have time to read the newspapers; they lay about the house in bundles, unopened, for Nat Wheeler was in the field now, working like a giant. Almost every evening Claude ran down to the mill to see Enid for a few minutes; he did not get out of his car, and she sat on the old stile, left over from horse-back days, while she chatted with him. She said frankly that she didn't like men who had just come out of the harvest field, and Claude did not blame her. He didn't like himself very well after his clothes began to dry on him. But the hour or two between supper and bed was the only time he had to see anybody. He slept like the heroes of old; sank upon his bed as the thing he desired most on earth, and for a blissful moment felt the sweetness of sleep before it overpowered him. In the morning, he seemed to hear the shriek of his alarm clock for hours before he could come up from the deep places into which he had plunged. All sorts of incongruous adventures happened to him between the first buzz of the alarm and the moment when he was enough awake to put out his hand and stop it. He dreamed, for instance, that it was evening, and he had gone to see Enid as usual. While she was coming down the path from the house, he discovered that he had no clothes on at all! Then, with wonderful agility, he jumped over the picket fence into a clump of castor beans, and stood in the dusk, trying to cover himself with the leaves, like Adam in the garden, talking commonplaces to Enid through chattering teeth, afraid lest at any moment she might discover his plight.
Mrs. Wheeler and Mahailey always lost weight in thrashing time, just as the horses did; this year Nat Wheeler had six hundred acres of winter wheat that would run close upon thirty bushels to the acre. Such a harvest was as hard on the women as it was on the men. Leonard Dawson's wife, Susie, came over to help Mrs. Wheeler, but she was expecting a baby in the fall, and the heat proved too much for her. Then one of the Yoeder daughters came; but the methodical German girl was so distracted by Mahailey's queer ways that Mrs. Wheeler said it was easier to do the work herself than to keep explaining Mahailey's psychology. Day after day ten ravenous men sat down at the long dinner table in the kitchen. Mrs. Wheeler baked pies and cakes and bread loaves as fast as the oven would hold them, and from morning till night the range was stoked like the fire-box of a locomotive. Mahailey wrung the necks of chickens until her wrist swelled up, as she said, "like a puff-adder."
By the end of July the excitement quieted down. The extra leaves were taken out of the dining table, the Wheeler horses had their barn to themselves again, and the reign of terror in the henhouse was over.
One evening Mr. Wheeler came down to supper with a bundle of newspapers under his arm. "Claude, I see this war scare in Europe has hit the market. Wheat's taken a jump. They're paying eighty-eight cents in Chicago. We might as well get rid of a few hundred bushel before it drops again. We'd better begin hauling tomorrow. You and I can make two trips a day over to Vicount, by changing teams,—there's no grade to speak of."
Mrs. Wheeler, arrested in the act of pouring coffee, sat holding the coffee-pot in the air, forgetting she had it. "If this is only a newspaper scare, as we think, I don't see why it should affect the market," she murmured mildly. "Surely those big bankers in New York and Boston have some way of knowing rumour from fact."
"Give me some coffee, please," said her husband testily. "I don't have to explain the market, I've only got to take advantage of it."
"But unless there's some reason, why are we dragging our wheat over to Vicount? Do you suppose it's some scheme the grain men are hiding under a war rumour? Have the financiers and the press ever deceived the public like this before?"
"I don't know a thing in the world about it, Evangeline, and I don't suppose. I telephoned the elevator at Vicount an hour ago, and they said they'd pay me seventy cents, subject to change in the morning quotations. Claude," with a twinkle in his eye, "you'd better not go to mill tonight. Turn in early. If we are on the road by six tomorrow, we'll be in town before the heat of the day."
"All right, sir. I want to look at the papers after supper. I haven't read anything but the headlines since before thrashing. Ernest was stirred up about the murder of that Grand Duke and said the Austrians would make trouble. But I never thought there was anything in it."
"There's seventy cents a bushel in it, anyway," said his father, reaching for a hot biscuit.
"If there's that much, I'm somehow afraid there will be more," said Mrs. Wheeler thoughtfully. She had picked up the paper fly-brush and sat waving it irregularly, as if she were trying to brush away a swarm of confusing ideas.
"You might call up Ernest, and ask him what the Bohemian papers say about it," Mr. Wheeler suggested.
Claude went to the telephone, but was unable to get any answer from the Havels. They had probably gone to a barn dance down in the Bohemian township. He event upstairs and sat down before an armchair full of newspapers; he could make nothing reasonable out of the smeary telegrams in big type on the front page of the Omaha World Herald. The German army was entering Luxembourg; he didn't know where Luxembourg was, whether it was a city or a country; he seemed to have some vague idea that it was a palace! His mother had gone up to "Mahailey's library," the attic, to hunt for a map of Europe,—a thing for which Nebraska farmers had never had much need. But that night, on many prairie homesteads, the women, American and foreign-born, were hunting for a map.
Claude was so sleepy that he did not wait for his mother's return. He stumbled upstairs and undressed in the dark. The night was sultry, with thunder clouds in the sky and an unceasing play of sheet-lightning all along the western horizon. Mosquitoes had got into his room during the day, and after he threw himself upon the bed they began sailing over him with their high, excruciating note. He turned from side to side and tried to muffle his ears with the pillow. The disquieting sound became merged, in his sleepy brain, with the big type on the front page of the paper; those black letters seemed to be flying about his head with a soft, high, sing-song whizz.
Late in the afternoon of the sixth of August, Claude and his empty wagon were bumping along the level road over the flat country between Vicount and the Lovely Creek valley. He had made two trips to town that day. Though he had kept his heaviest team for the hot afternoon pull, his horses were too tired to be urged off a walk. Their necks were marbled with sweat stains, and their flanks were plastered with the white dust that rose at every step. Their heads hung down, and their breathing was deep and slow. The wood of the green-painted wagon seat was blistering hot to the touch. Claude sat at one end of it, his head bared to catch the faint stir of air that sometimes dried his neck and chin and saved him the trouble of pulling out a handkerchief. On every side the wheat stubble stretched for miles and miles. Lonely straw stacks stood up yellow in the sun and cast long shadows. Claude peered anxiously along the distant locust hedges which told where the road ran. Ernest Havel had promised to meet him somewhere on the way home. He had not seen Ernest for a week: since then Time had brought prodigies to birth.
At last he recognized the Havels' team along way off, and he stopped and waited for Ernest beside a thorny hedge, looking thoughtfully about him. The sun was already low. It hung above the stubble, all milky and rosy with the heat, like the image of a sun reflected in grey water. In the east the full moon had just risen, and its thin silver surface was flushed with pink until it looked exactly like the setting sun. Except for the place each occupied in the heavens, Claude could not have told which was which. They rested upon opposite rims of the world, two bright shields, and regarded each other, as if they, too, had met by appointment.
Claude and Ernest sprang to the ground at the same instant and shook hands, feeling that they had not seen each other for a long while.
"Well, what do you make of it, Ernest?"
The young man shook his head cautiously, but replied no further. He patted his horses and eased the collars on their necks.
"I waited in town for the Hastings paper," Claude went on impatiently. "England declared war last night."
"The Germans," said Ernest, "are at Liege. I know where that is. I sailed from Antwerp when I came over here."
"Yes, I saw that. Can the Belgians do anything?"
"Nothing." Ernest leaned against the wagon wheel and drawing his pipe from his pocket slowly filled it. "Nobody can do anything. The German army will go where it pleases."
"If it's as bad as that, why are the Belgians putting up a fight?"
"I don't know. It's fine, but it will come to nothing in the end. Let me tell you something about the German army, Claude."
Pacing up and down beside the locust hedge, Ernest rehearsed the great argument; preparation, organization, concentration, inexhaustible resources, inexhaustible men. While he talked the sun disappeared, the moon contracted, solidified, and slowly climbed the pale sky. The fields were still glimmering with the bland reflection left over from daylight, and the distance grew shadowy,—not dark, but seemingly full of sleep.
"If I were at home," Ernest concluded, "I would be in the Austrian army this minute. I guess all my cousins and nephews are fighting the Russians or the Belgians already. How would you like it yourself, to be marched into a peaceful country like this, in the middle of harvest, and begin to destroy it?"
"I wouldn't do it, of course. I'd desert and be shot."
"Then your family would be persecuted. Your brothers, maybe even your father, would be made orderlies to Austrian officers and be kicked in the mouth."
"I wouldn't bother about that. I'd let my male relatives decide for themselves how often they would be kicked."
Ernest shrugged his shoulders. "You Americans brag like little boys; you would and you wouldn't! I tell you, nobody's will has anything to do with this. It is the harvest of all that has been planted. I never thought it would come in my life-time, but I knew it would come."
The boys lingered a little while, looking up at the soft radiance of the sky. There was not a cloud anywhere, and the low glimmer in the fields had imperceptibly changed to full, pure moonlight. Presently the two wagons began to creep along the white road, and on the backless seat of each the driver sat drooping forward, lost in thought. When they reached the corner where Ernest turned south, they said goodnight without raising their voices. Claude's horses went on as if they were walking in their sleep. They did not even sneeze at the low cloud of dust beaten up by their heavy foot-falls,—the only sounds in the vast quiet of the night.
Why was Ernest so impatient with him, Claude wondered. He could not pretend to feel as Ernest did. He had nothing behind him to shape his opinions or colour his feelings about what was going on in Europe; he could only sense it day by day. He had always been taught that the German people were pre-eminent in the virtues Americans most admire; a month ago he would have said they had all the ideals a decent American boy would fight for. The invasion of Belgium was contradictory to the German character as he knew it in his friends and neighbours. He still cherished the hope that there had been some great mistake; that this splendid people would apologize and right itself with the world.
Mr. Wheeler came down the hill, bareheaded and coatless, as Claude drove into the barnyard. "I expect you're tired. I'll put your team away. Any news?"
"England has declared war."
Mr. Wheeler stood still a moment and scratched his head. "I guess you needn't get up early tomorrow. If this is to be a sure enough war, wheat will go higher. I've thought it was a bluff until now. You take the papers up to your mother."
Enid and Mrs. Royce had gone away to the Michigan sanatorium where they spent part of every summer, and would not be back until October. Claude and his mother gave all their attention to the war despatches. Day after day, through the first two weeks of August, the bewildering news trickled from the little towns out into the farming country.
About the middle of the month came the story of the fall of the forts at Liege, battered at for nine days and finally reduced in a few hours by siege guns brought up from the rear,—guns which evidently could destroy any fortifications that ever had been, or ever could be constructed. Even to these quiet wheat-growing people, the siege guns before Liege were a menace; not to their safety or their goods, but to their comfortable, established way of thinking. They introduced the greater-than-man force which afterward repeatedly brought into this war the effect of unforeseeable natural disaster, like tidal waves, earthquakes, or the eruption of volcanoes.
On the twenty-third came the news of the fall of the forts at Namur; again giving warning that an unprecedented power of destruction had broken loose in the world. A few days later the story of the wiping out of the ancient and peaceful seat of learning at Louvain made it clear that this force was being directed toward incredible ends. By this time, too, the papers were full of accounts of the destruction of civilian populations. Something new, and certainly evil, was at work among mankind. Nobody was ready with a name for it. None of the well-worn words descriptive of human behaviour seemed adequate. The epithets grouped about the name of "Attila" were too personal, too dramatic, too full of old, familiar human passion.
One afternoon in the first week of September Mrs. Wheeler was in the kitchen making cucumber pickles, when she heard Claude's car coming back from Frankfort. In a moment he entered, letting the screen door slam behind him, and threw a bundle of mail on the table.
"What do you, think, Mother? The French have moved the seat of government to Bordeaux! Evidently, they don't think they can hold Paris."
Mrs. Wheeler wiped her pale, perspiring face with the hem of her apron and sat down in the nearest chair. "You mean that Paris is not the capital of France any more? Can that be true?"
"That's what it looks like. Though the papers say it's only a precautionary measure."
She rose. "Let's go up to the map. I don't remember exactly where Bordeaux is. Mahailey, you won't let my vinegar burn, will you?"
Claude followed her to the sitting-room, where her new map hung on the wall above the carpet lounge. Leaning against the back of a willow rocking-chair, she began to move her hand about over the brightly coloured, shiny surface, murmuring, "Yes, there is Bordeaux, so far to the south; and there is Paris."
Claude, behind her, looked over her shoulder. "Do you suppose they are going to hand their city over to the Germans, like a Christmas present? I should think they'd burn it first, the way the Russians did Moscow. They can do better than that now, they can dynamite it!"
"Don't say such things." Mrs. Wheeler dropped into the deep willow chair, realizing that she was very tired, now that she had left the stove and the heat of the kitchen. She began weakly to wave the palm leaf fan before her face. "It's said to be such a beautiful city. Perhaps the Germans will spare it, as they did Brussels. They must be sick of destruction by now. Get the encyclopaedia and see what it says. I've left my glasses downstairs."
Claude brought a volume from the bookcase and sat down on the lounge. He began: "Paris, the capital city of France and the Department of the Seine,—shall I skip the history?"
"No. Read it all."
He cleared his throat and began again: "At its first appearance in history, there was nothing to foreshadow the important part which Paris was to play in Europe and in the world," etc.
Mrs. Wheeler rocked and fanned, forgetting the kitchen and the cucumbers as if they had never been. Her tired body was resting, and her mind, which was never tired, was occupied with the account of early religious foundations under the Merovingian kings. Her eyes were always agreeably employed when they rested upon the sunburned neck and catapult shoulders of her red-headed son.
Claude read faster and faster until he stopped with a gasp.
"Mother, there are pages of kings! We'll read that some other time. I want to find out what it's like now, and whether it's going to have any more history." He ran his finger up and down the columns. "Here, this looks like business.
"Defences: Paris, in a recent German account of the greatest fortresses of the world, possesses three distinct rings of defences"—here he broke off. "Now what do you think of that? A German account, and this is an English book! The world simply made a mistake about the Germans all along. It's as if we invited a neighbour over here and showed him our cattle and barns, and all the time he was planning how he would come at night and club us in our beds."
Mrs. Wheeler passed her hand over her brow. "Yet we have had so many German neighbours, and never one that wasn't kind and helpful."
"I know it. Everything Mrs. Erlich ever told me about Germany made me want to go there. And the people that sing all those beautiful songs about women and children went into Belgian villages and—"
"Don't, Claude!" his mother put out her hands as if to push his words back. "Read about the defences of Paris; that's what we must think about now. I can't but believe there is one fort the Germans didn't put down in their book, and that it will stand. We know Paris is a wicked city, but there must be many God-fearing people there, and God has preserved it all these years. You saw in the paper how the churches are full all day of women praying." She leaned forward and smiled at him indulgently. "And you believe those prayers will accomplish nothing, son?"
Claude squirmed, as he always did when his mother touched upon certain subjects. "Well, you see, I can't forget that the Germans are praying, too. And I guess they are just naturally more pious than the French." Taking up the book he began once more: "In the low ground again, at the narrowest part of the great loop of the Marne," etc.
Claude and his mother had grown familiar with the name of that river, and with the idea of its strategic importance, before it began to stand out in black headlines a few days later.
The fall ploughing had begun as usual. Mr. Wheeler had decided to put in six hundred acres of wheat again. Whatever happened on the other side of the world, they would need bread. He took a third team himself and went into the field every morning to help Dan and Claude. The neighbours said that nobody but the Kaiser had ever been able to get Nat Wheeler down to regular work.
Since the men were all afield, Mrs. Wheeler now went every morning to the mailbox at the crossroads, a quarter of a mile away, to get yesterday's Omaha and Kansas City papers which the carrier left. In her eagerness she opened and began to read them as she turned homeward, and her feet, never too sure, took a wandering way among sunflowers and buffaloburrs. One morning, indeed, she sat down on a red grass bank beside the road and read all the war news through before she stirred, while the grasshoppers played leap-frog over her skirts, and the gophers came out of their holes and blinked at her. That noon, when she saw Claude leading his team to the water tank, she hurried down to him without stopping to find her bonnet, and reached the windmill breathless.
"The French have stopped falling back, Claude. They are standing at the Marne. There is a great battle going on. The papers say it may decide the war. It is so near Paris that some of the army went out in taxi-cabs." Claude drew himself up. "Well, it will decide about Paris, anyway, won't it? How many divisions?"
"I can't make out. The accounts are so confusing. But only a few of the English are there, and the French are terribly outnumbered. Your father got in before you, and he has the papers upstairs."
"They are twenty-four hours old. I'll go to Vicount tonight after I'm done work, and get the Hastings paper."
In the evening, when he came back from town, he found his father and mother waiting up for him. He stopped a moment in the sitting-room. "There is not much news, except that the battle is on, and practically the whole French army is engaged. The Germans outnumber them five to three in men, and nobody knows how much in artillery. General Joffre says the French will fall back no farther." He did not sit down, but went straight upstairs to his room.
Mrs. Wheeler put out the lamp, undressed, and lay down, but not to sleep. Long afterward, Claude heard her gently closing a window, and he smiled to himself in the dark. His mother, he knew, had always thought of Paris as the wickedest of cities, the capital of a frivolous, wine-drinking, Catholic people, who were responsible for the massacre of St. Bartholomew and for the grinning atheist, Voltaire. For the last two weeks, ever since the French began to fall back in Lorraine, he had noticed with amusement her growing solicitude for Paris.
It was curious, he reflected, lying wide awake in the dark: four days ago the seat of government had been moved to Bordeaux,—with the effect that Paris seemed suddenly to have become the capital, not of France, but of the world! He knew he was not the only farmer boy who wished himself tonight beside the Marne. The fact that the river had a pronounceable name, with a hard Western "r" standing like a keystone in the middle of it, somehow gave one's imagination a firmer hold on the situation. Lying still and thinking fast, Claude felt that even he could clear the bar of French "politeness"—so much more terrifying than German bullets—and slip unnoticed into that outnumbered army. One's manners wouldn't matter on the Marne tonight, the night of the eighth of September, 1914. There was nothing on earth he would so gladly be as an atom in that wall of flesh and blood that rose and melted and rose again before the city which had meant so much through all the centuries—but had never meant so much before. Its name had come to have the purity of an abstract idea. In great sleepy continents, in land-locked harvest towns, in the little islands of the sea, for four days men watched that name as they might stand out at night to watch a comet, or to see a star fall.
It was Sunday afternoon and Claude had gone down to the mill house, as Enid and her mother had returned from Michigan the day before. Mrs. Wheeler, propped back in a rocking chair, was reading, and Mr. Wheeler, in his shirt sleeves, his Sunday collar unbuttoned, was sitting at his walnut secretary, amusing himself with columns of figures. Presently he rose and yawned, stretching his arms above his head.
"Claude thinks he wants to begin building right away, up on the quarter next the timber claim. I've been figuring on the lumber. Building materials are cheap just now, so I suppose I'd better let him go ahead."
Mrs. Wheeler looked up absently from the page. "Why, I suppose so."
Her husband sat down astride a chair, and leaning his arms on the back of it, looked at her. "What do you think of this match, anyway? I don't know as I've heard you say."
"Enid is a good, Christian girl..." Mrs. Wheeler began resolutely, but her sentence hung in the air like a question.
He moved impatiently. "Yes, I know. But what does a husky boy like Claude want to pick out a girl like that for? Why, Evangeline, she'll be the old woman over again!"
Apparently these misgivings were not new to Mrs. Wheeler, for she put out her hand to stop him and whispered in solemn agitation, "Don't say anything! Don't breathe!"
"Oh, I won't interfere! I never do. I'd rather have her for a daughter-in-law than a wife, by a long shot. Claude's more of a fool than I thought him." He picked up his hat and strolled down to the barn, but his wife did not recover her composure so easily. She left the chair where she had hopefully settled herself for comfort, took up a feather duster and began moving distractedly about the room, brushing the surface of the furniture. When the war news was bad, or when she felt troubled about Claude, she set to cleaning house or overhauling the closets, thankful to be able to put some little thing to rights in such a disordered world.
As soon as the fall planting was done, Claude got the well borers out from town to drill his new well, and while they were at work he began digging his cellar. He was building his house on the level stretch beside his father's timber claim because, when he was a little boy, he had thought that grove of trees the most beautiful spot in the world. It was a square of about thirty acres, set out in ash and box-elder and cotton-woods, with a thick mulberry hedge on the south side. The trees had been neglected of late years, but if he lived up there he could manage to trim them and care for them at odd moments.
Every morning now he ran up in the Ford and worked at his cellar. He had heard that the deeper a cellar was, the better it was; and he meant that this one should be deep enough. One day Leonard Dawson stopped to see what progress he was making. Standing on the edge of the hole, he shouted to the lad who was sweating below.
"My God, Claude, what do you want of a cellar as deep as that? When your wife takes a notion to go to China, you can open a trap-door and drop her through!"
Claude flung down his pick and ran up the ladder. "Enid's not going to have notions of that sort," he said wrathfully.
"Well, you needn't get mad. I'm glad to hear it. I was sorry when the other girl went. It always looked to me like Enid had her face set for China, but I haven't seen her for a good while,—not since before she went off to Michigan with the old lady."
After Leonard was gone, Claude returned to his work, still out of humour. He was not altogether happy in his mind about Enid. When he went down to the mill it was usually Mr. Royce, not Enid, who sought to detain him, followed him down the path to the gate and seemed sorry to see him go. He could not blame Enid with any lack of interest in what he was doing. She talked and thought of nothing but the new house, and most of her suggestions were good. He often wished she would ask for something unreasonable and extravagant. But she had no selfish whims, and even insisted that the comfortable upstairs sleeping room he had planned with such care should be reserved for a guest chamber.
As the house began to take shape, Enid came up often in her car, to watch its growth, to show Claude samples of wallpapers and draperies, or a design for a window-seat she had cut from some magazine. There could be no question of her pride in every detail. The disappointing thing was that she seemed more interested in the house than in him. These months when they could be together as much as they pleased, she treated merely as a period of time in which they were building a house.
Everything would be all right when they were married, Claude told himself. He believed in the transforming power of marriage, as his mother believed in the miraculous effects of conversion. Marriage reduced all women to a common denominator; changed a cool, self-satisfied girl into a loving and generous one. It was quite right that Enid should be unconscious now of everything that she was to be when she was his wife. He told himself he wouldn't want it otherwise.
But he was lonely, all the same. He lavished upon the little house the solicitude and cherishing care that Enid seemed not to need. He stood over the carpenters urging the greatest nicety in the finish of closets and cupboards, the convenient placing of shelves, the exact joining of sills and casings. Often he stayed late in the evening, after the workmen with their noisy boots had gone home to supper. He sat down on a rafter or on the skeleton of the upper porch and quite lost himself in brooding, in anticipation of things that seemed as far away as ever. The dying light, the quiet stars coming out, were friendly and sympathetic. One night a bird flew in and fluttered wildly about among the partitions, shrieking with fright before it darted out into the dusk through one of the upper windows and found its way to freedom.
When the carpenters were ready to put in the staircase, Claude telephoned Enid and asked her to come and show them just what height she wanted the steps made. His mother had always had to climb stairs that were too steep. Enid stopped her car at the Frankfort High School at four o'clock and persuaded Gladys Farmer to drive out with her.
When they arrived they found Claude working on the lattice enclosure of the back porch. "Claude is like Jonah," Enid laughed. "He wants to plant gourd vines here, so they will run over the lattice and make shade. I can think of other vines that might be more ornamental."
Claude put down his hammer and said coaxingly: "Have you ever seen a gourd vine when it had something to climb on, Enid? You wouldn't believe how pretty they are; big green leaves, and gourds and yellow blossoms hanging all over them at the same time. An old German woman who keeps a lunch counter at one of those stations on the road to Lincoln has them running up her back porch, and I've wanted to plant some ever since I first saw hers."
Enid smiled indulgently. "Well, I suppose you'll let me have clematis for the front porch, anyway? The men are getting ready to leave, so we'd better see about the steps."
After the workmen had gone, Claude took the girls upstairs by the ladder. They emerged from a little entry into a large room which extended over both the front and back parlours. The carpenters called it "the pool hall". There were two long windows, like doors, opening upon the porch roof, and in the sloping ceiling were two dormer windows, one looking north to the timber claim and the other south toward Lovely Creek. Gladys at once felt a singular pleasantness about this chamber, empty and unplastered as it was. "What a lovely room!" she exclaimed.
Claude took her up eagerly. "Don't you think so? You see it's my idea to have the second floor for ourselves, instead of cutting it up into little boxes as people usually do. We can come up here and forget the farm and the kitchen and all our troubles. I've made a big closet for each of us, and got everything just right. And now Enid wants to keep this room for preachers!"
Enid laughed. "Not only for preachers, Claude. For Gladys, when she comes to visit us—you see she likes it—and for your mother when she comes to spend a week and rest. I don't think we ought to take the best room for ourselves."
"Why not?" Claude argued hotly. "I'm building the whole house for ourselves. Come out on the porch roof, Gladys. Isn't this fine for hot nights? I want to put a railing round and make this into a balcony, where we can have chairs and a hammock."
Gladys sat down on the low window-sill. "Enid, you'd be foolish to keep this for a guest room. Nobody would ever enjoy it as much as you would. You can see the whole country from here."
Enid smiled, but showed no sign of relenting. "Let's wait and watch the sun go down. Be careful, Claude. It makes me nervous to see you lying there."
He was stretched out on the edge of the roof, one leg hanging over, and his head pillowed on his arm. The flat fields turned red, the distant windmills flashed white, and little rosy clouds appeared in the sky above them.
"If I make this into a balcony," Claude murmured, "the peak of the roof will always throw a shadow over it in the afternoon, and at night the stars will be right overhead. It will be a fine place to sleep in harvest time."
"Oh, you could always come up here to sleep on a hot night," Enid said quickly.
"It wouldn't be the same."
They sat watching the light die out of the sky, and Enid and Gladys drew close together as the coolness of the autumn evening came on. The three friends were thinking about the same thing; and yet, if by some sorcery each had begun to speak his thoughts aloud, amazement and bitterness would have fallen upon all. Enid's reflections were the most blameless. The discussion about the guest room had reminded her of Brother Weldon. In September, on her way to Michigan with Mrs. Royce, she had stopped for a day in Lincoln to take counsel with Arthur Weldon as to whether she ought to marry one whom she described to him as "an unsaved man." Young Mr. Weldon approached this subject with a cautious tread, but when he learned that the man in question was Claude Wheeler, he became more partisan than was his wont. He seemed to think that her marrying Claude was the one way to reclaim him, and did not hesitate to say that the most important service devout girls could perform for the church was to bring promising young men to its support. Enid had been almost certain that Mr. Weldon would approve her course before she consulted him, but his concurrence always gratified her pride. She told him that when she had a home of her own she would expect him to spend a part of his summer vacation there, and he blushingly expressed his willingness to do so.
Gladys, too, was lost in her own thoughts, sitting with that ease which made her seem rather indolent, her head resting against the empty window frame, facing the setting sun. The rosy light made her brown eyes gleam like old copper, and there was a moody look in them, as if in her mind she were defying something. When he happened to glance at her, it occurred to Claude that it was a hard destiny to be the exceptional person in a community, to be more gifted or more intelligent than the rest. For a girl it must be doubly hard. He sat up suddenly and broke the long silence.
"I forgot, Enid, I have a secret to tell you. Over in the timber claim the other day I started up a flock of quail. They must be the only ones left in all this neighbourhood, and I doubt if they ever come out of the timber. The bluegrass hasn't been mowed in there for years,—not since I first went away to school, and maybe they live on the grass seeds. In summer, of course, there are mulberries."
Enid wondered whether the birds could have learned enough about the world to stay hidden in the timber lot. Claude was sure they had.
"Nobody ever goes near the place except Father; he stops there sometimes. Maybe he has seen them and never said a word. It would be just like him." He told them he had scattered shelled corn in the grass, so that the birds would not be tempted to fly over into Leonard Dawson's cornfield. "If Leonard saw them, he'd likely take a shot at them."
"Why don't you ask him not to?" Enid suggested.
Claude laughed. "That would be asking a good deal. When a bunch of quail rise out of a cornfield they're a mighty tempting sight, if a man likes hunting. We'll have a picnic for you when you come out next summer, Gladys. There are some pretty places over there in the timber."
Gladys started up. "Why, it's night already! It's lovely here, but you must get me home, Enid."
They found it dark inside. Claude took Enid down the ladder and out to her car, and then went back for Gladys. She was sitting on the floor at the top of the ladder. Giving her his hand he helped her to rise.
"So you like my little house," he said gratefully.
"Yes. Oh, yes!" Her voice was full of feeling, but she did not exert herself to say more. Claude descended in front of her to keep her from slipping. She hung back while he led her through confusing doorways and helped her over the piles of laths that littered the floors. At the edge of the gaping cellar entrance she stopped and leaned wearily on his arm for a moment. She did not speak, but he understood that his new house made her sad; that she, too, had come to the place where she must turn out of the old path. He longed to whisper to her and beg her not to marry his brother. He lingered and hesitated, fumbling in the dark. She had his own cursed kind of sensibility; she would expect too much from life and be disappointed. He was reluctant to lead her out into the chilly evening without some word of entreaty. He would willingly have prolonged their passage,— through many rooms and corridors. Perhaps, had that been possible, the strength in him would have found what it was seeking; even in this short interval it had stirred and made itself felt, had uttered a confused appeal. Claude was greatly surprised at himself.