Enid decided that she would be married in the first week of June. Early in May the plasterers and painters began to be busy in the new house. The walls began to shine, and Claude went about all day, oiling and polishing the hard-pine floors and wainscoting. He hated to have anybody step on his floors. He planted gourd vines about the back porch, set out clematis and lilac bushes, and put in a kitchen garden. He and Enid were going to Denver and Colorado Springs for their wedding trip, but Ralph would be at home then, and he had promised to come over and water the flowers and shrubs if the weather was dry.
Enid often brought her work and sat sewing on the front porch while Claude was rubbing the woodwork inside the house, or digging and planting outside. This was the best part of his courtship. It seemed to him that he had never spent such happy days before. If Enid did not come, he kept looking down the road and listening, went from one thing to another and made no progress. He felt full of energy, so long as she sat there on the porch, with lace and ribbons and muslin in her lap. When he passed by, going in or out, and stopped to be near her for a moment, she seemed glad to have him tarry. She liked him to admire her needlework, and did not hesitate to show him the featherstitching and embroidery she was putting on her new underclothes. He could see, from the glances they exchanged, that the painters thought this very bold behaviour in one so soon to be a bride. He thought it very charming behaviour himself, though he would never have expected it of Enid. His heart beat hard when he realized how far she confided in him, how little she was afraid of him! She would let him linger there, standing over her and looking down at her quick fingers, or sitting on the ground at her feet, gazing at the muslin pinned to her knee, until his own sense of propriety told him to get about his work and spare the feelings of the painters.
"When are you going over to the timber claim with me?" he asked, dropping on the ground beside her one warm, windy afternoon. Enid was sitting on the porch floor, her back against a pillar, and her feet on one of those round mats of pursley that grow over hard-beaten earth. "I've found my flock of quail again. They live in the deep grass, over by a ditch that holds water most of the year. I'm going to plant a few rows of peas in there, so they'll have a feeding ground at home. I consider Leonard's cornfield a great danger. I don't know whether to take him into my confidence or not."
"You've told Ernest Havel, I suppose?"
"Oh, yes!" Claude replied, trying not to be aware of the little note of acrimony in her voice. "He's perfectly safe. That place is a paradise for birds. The trees are full of nests. You can stand over there in the morning and hear the young robins squawking for their breakfast. Come up early tomorrow morning and go over with me, won't you? But wear heavy shoes; it's wet in the long grass."
While they were talking a sudden whirlwind swept round the corner of the house, caught up the little mound of folded lace corset-covers and strewed them over the dusty yard. Claude ran after them with Enid's flowered workbag and thrust them into it as he came upon one after another, fluttering in the weeds. When he returned, Enid had folded her needle-case and was putting on her hat. "Thank you," she said with a smile. "Did you find everything?"
"I think so." He hurried toward the car to hide his guilty face. One little lace thing he had not put into the bag, but had thrust into his pocket.
The next morning Enid came up early to hear the birds in the timber.
On the night before his wedding Claude went to bed early. He had been dashing about with Ralph all day in the car, making final preparations, and was worn out. He fell asleep almost at once. The women of the household could not so easily forget the great event of tomorrow. After the supper dishes were washed, Mahailey clambered up to the attic to get the quilt she had so long been saving for a wedding present for Claude. She took it out of the chest, unfolded it, and counted the stars in the pattern—counting was an accomplishment she was proud of—before she wrapped it up. It was to go down to the mill house with the other presents tomorrow. Mrs. Wheeler went to bed many times that night. She kept thinking of things that ought to be looked after; getting up and going to make sure that Claude's heavy underwear had been put into his trunk, against the chance of cold in the mountains; or creeping downstairs to see that the six roasted chickens which were to help out at the wedding supper were securely covered from the cats. As she went about these tasks, she prayed constantly. She had not prayed so long and fervently since the battle of the Marne.
Early the next morning Ralph loaded the big car with the presents and baskets of food and ran down to the Royces'. Two motors from town were already standing in the mill yard; they had brought a company of girls who came with all the June roses in Frankfort to trim the house for the wedding. When Ralph tooted his horn, half-a-dozen of them ran out to greet him, reproaching him because he had not brought his brother along. Ralph was immediately pressed into service. He carried the step-ladder wherever he was told, drove nails, and wound thorny sprays of rambler roses around the pillars between the front and back parlours, making the arch under which the ceremony was to take place.
Gladys Farmer had not been able to leave her classes at the High School to help in this friendly work, but at eleven o'clock a livery automobile drove up, laden with white and pink peonies from her front yard, and bringing a box of hothouse flowers she had ordered for Enid from Hastings. The girls admired them, but declared that Gladys was extravagant, as usual; the flowers from her own yard would really have been enough. The car was driven by a lank, ragged boy who worked about the town garage, and who was called "Silent Irv," because nobody could ever get a word out of him. He had almost no voice at all,—a thin little squeak in the top of his throat, like the gasping whisper of a medium in her trance state. When he came to the front door, both arms full of peonies, he managed to wheeze out:
"These are from Miss Farmer. There are some more down there."
The girls went back to his car with him, and he took out a square box, tied up with white ribbons and little silver bells, containing the bridal bouquet.
"How did you happen to get these?" Ralph asked the thin boy. "I was to go to town for them."
The messenger swallowed. "Miss Farmer told me if there were any other flowers at the station marked for here, I should bring them along."
"That was nice of her." Ralph thrust his hand into his trousers pocket. "How much? I'll settle with you before I forget."
A pink flush swept over the boy's pale face,—a delicate face under ragged hair, contracted by a kind of shrinking unhappiness. His eyes were always half-closed, as if he did not want to see the world around him, or to be seen by it. He went about like somebody in a dream. "Miss Farmer," he whispered, "has paid me."
"Well, she thinks of everything!" exclaimed one of the girls. "You used to go to school to Gladys, didn't you, Irv?"
"Yes, mam." He got into his car without opening the door, slipping like an eel round the steering-rod, and drove off.
The girls followed Ralph up the gravel walk toward the house. One whispered to the others: "Do you suppose Gladys will come out tonight with Bayliss Wheeler? I always thought she had a pretty warm spot in her heart for Claude, myself."
Some one changed the subject. "I can't get over hearing Irv talk so much. Gladys must have put a spell on him."
"She was always kind to him in school," said the girl who had questioned the silent boy. "She said he was good in his studies, but he was so frightened he could never recite. She let him write out the answers at his desk."
Ralph stayed for lunch, playing about with the girls until his mother telephoned for him. "Now I'll have to go home and look after my brother, or he'll turn up tonight in a striped shirt."
"Give him our love," the girls called after him, "and tell him not to be late."
As he drove toward the farm, Ralph met Dan, taking Claude's trunk into town. He slowed his car. "Any message?" he called.
Dan grinned. "Naw. I left him doin' as well as could be expected."
Mrs. Wheeler met Ralph on the stairs. "He's up in his room. He complains his new shoes are too tight. I think it's nervousness. Perhaps he'll let you shave him; I'm sure he'll cut himself. And I wish the barber hadn't cut his hair so short, Ralph. I hate this new fashion of shearing men behind the ears. The back of his neck is the ugliest part of a man." She spoke with such resentment that Ralph broke into a laugh.
"Why, Mother, I thought all men looked alike to you! Anyhow, Claude's no beauty."
"When will you want your bath? I'll have to manage so that everybody won't be calling for hot water at once." She turned to Mr. Wheeler who sat writing a check at the secretary. "Father, could you take your bath now, and be out of the way?"
"Bath?" Mr. Wheeler shouted, "I don't want any bath! I'm not going to be married tonight. I guess we don't have to boil the whole house for Enid."
Ralph snickered and shot upstairs. He found Claude sitting on the bed, with one shoe off and one shoe on. A pile of socks lay scattered on the rug. A suitcase stood open on one chair and a black travelling bag on another.
"Are you sure they're too small?" Ralph asked.
"About four sizes."
"Well, why didn't you get them big enough?"
"I did. That shark in Hastings worked off another pair on me when I wasn't looking. That's all right," snatching away the shoe his brother had picked up to examine. "I don't care, so long as I can stand in them. You'd better go telephone the depot and ask if the train's on time."
"They won't know yet. It's seven hours till it's due."
"Then telephone later. But find out, somehow. I don't want to stand around that station, waiting for the train."
Ralph whistled. Clearly, his young man was going to be hard to manage. He proposed a bath as a soothing measure. No, Claude had had his bath. Had he, then, packed his suitcase?
"How the devil can I pack it when I don't know what I'm going to put on?"
"You'll put on one shirt and one pair of socks. I'm going to get some of this stuff out of the way for you." Ralph caught up a handful of socks and fell to sorting them. Several had bright red spots on the toe. He began to laugh.
"I know why your shoe hurts, you've cut your foot!"
Claude sprang up as if a hornet had stung him. "Will you get out of here," he shouted, "and let me alone?"
Ralph vanished. He told his mother he would dress at once, as they might have to use force with Claude at the last moment. The wedding ceremony was to be at eight, supper was to follow, and Claude and Enid were to leave Frankfort at 10:25, on the Denver express. At six o'clock, when Ralph knocked at his brother's door, he found him shaved and brushed, and dressed, except for his coat. His tucked shirt was not rumpled, and his tie was properly knotted. Whatever pain they concealed, his patent leather shoes were smooth and glistening and resolutely pointed.
"Are you packed?" Ralph asked in astonishment.
"Nearly. I wish you'd go over things and make them look a little neater, if you can. I'd hate to have a girl see the inside of that suitcase, the way it is. Where shall I put my cigars? They'll make everything smell, wherever I put them. All my clothes seem to smell of cooking, or starch, or something. I don't know what Mahailey does to them," he ended bitterly.
Ralph looked outraged. "Well, of all ingratitude! Mahailey's been ironing your damned old shirts for a week!"
"Yes, yes, I know. Don't rattle me. I forgot to put any handkerchiefs in my trunk, so you'll have to get the whole bunch in somewhere."
Mr. Wheeler appeared in the doorway, his Sunday black trousers gallowsed up high over a white shirt, wafting a rich odor of bayrum from his tumbled hair. He held a thin folded paper delicately between his thick fingers.
"Where is your bill-book, son?"
Claude caught up his discarded trousers and extracted a square of leather from the pocket. His father took it and placed the bit of paper inside with the bank notes. "You may want to pick up some trifle your wife fancies," he said. "Have you got your railroad tickets in here? Here is your trunk check Dan brought back. Don't forget, I've put it in with your tickets and marked it C. W., so you'll know which is your check and which is Enid's."
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."
Claude had already drawn from the bank all the money he would need. This additional bank check was Mr. Wheeler's admission that he was sorry for some sarcastic remarks he had made a few days ago, when he discovered that Claude had reserved a stateroom on the Denver express. Claude had answered curtly that when Enid and her mother went to Michigan they always had a stateroom, and he wasn't going to ask her to travel less comfortably with him.
At seven o'clock the Wheeler family set out in the two cars that stood waiting by the windmill. Mr. Wheeler drove the big Cadillac, and Ralph took Mahailey and Dan in the Ford. When they reached the mill house the outer yard was already black with motors, and the porch and parlours were full of people talking and moving about.
Claude went directly upstairs. Ralph began to seat the guests, arranging the folding chairs in such a way as to leave a passage from the foot of the stairs to the floral arch he had constructed that morning. The preacher had his Bible in his hand and was standing under the light, hunting for his chapter. Enid would have preferred to have Mr. Weldon come down from Lincoln to marry her, but that would have wounded Mr. Snowberry deeply. After all, he was her minister, though he was not eloquent and persuasive like Arthur Weldon. He had fewer English words at his command than most human beings, and even those did not come to him readily. In his pulpit he sought for them and struggled with them until drops of perspiration rolled from his forehead and fell upon his coarse, matted brown beard. But he believed what he said, and language was so little an accomplishment with him that he was not tempted to say more than he believed. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War, on the losing side, and he was a simple, courageous man.
Ralph was to be both usher and best man. Gladys Farmer could not be one of the bridesmaids because she was to play the wedding march. At eight o'clock Enid and Claude came downstairs together, conducted by Ralph and followed by four girls dressed in white, like the bride. They took their places under the arch before the preacher. He began with the chapter from Genesis about the creation of man, and Adam's rib, reading in a laboured manner, as if he did not quite know why he had selected that passage and was looking for something he did not find. His nose-glasses kept falling off and dropping upon the open book. Throughout this prolonged fumbling Enid stood calm, looking at him respectfully, very pretty in her short veil. Claude was so pale that he looked unnatural,—nobody had ever seen him like that before. His face, between his very black clothes and his smooth, sandy hair, was white and severe, and he uttered his responses in a hollow voice. Mahailey, at the back of the room, in a black hat with green gooseberries on it, was standing, in order to miss nothing. She watched Mr. Snowberry as if she hoped to catch some visible sign of the miracle he was performing. She always wondered just what it was the preacher did to make the wrongest thing in the world the rightest thing in the world.
When it was over, Enid went upstairs to put on her travelling dress, and Ralph and Gladys began seating the guests for supper. Just twenty minutes later Enid came down and took her place beside Claude at the head of the long table. The company rose and drank the bride's health in grape-juice punch. Mr. Royce, however, while the guests were being seated, had taken Mr. Wheeler down to the fruit cellar, where the two old friends drank off a glass of well-seasoned Kentucky whiskey, and shook hands. When they came back to the table, looking younger than when they withdrew, the preacher smelled the tang of spirits and felt slighted. He looked disconsolately into his ruddy goblet and thought about the marriage at Cana. He tried to apply his Bible literally to life and, though he didn't dare breathe it aloud in these days, he could never see why he was better than his Lord.
Ralph, as master of ceremonies, kept his head and forgot nothing. When it was time to start, he tapped Claude on the shoulder, cutting his father short in one of his best stories. Contrary to custom, the bridal couple were to go to the station unaccompanied, and they vanished from the head of the table with only a nod and a smile to the guests. Ralph hurried them into the light car, where he had already stowed Enid's hand luggage. Only wizened little Mrs. Royce slipped out from the kitchen to bid them good-bye.
That evening some bad boys had come out from town and strewn the road near the mill with dozens of broken glass bottles, after which they hid in the wild plum bushes to wait for the fun. Ralph's was the first car out, and though his lights glittered on this bed of jagged glass, there was no time to stop; the road was ditched on either side, so he had to drive straight ahead, and got into Frankfort on flat tires. The express whistled just as he pulled up at the station. He and Claude caught up the four pieces of hand luggage and put them in the stateroom. Leaving Enid there with the bags, the two boys went to the rear platform of the observation car to talk until the last moment. Ralph checked off on his fingers the list of things he had promised Claude to attend to. Claude thanked him feelingly. He felt that without Ralph he could never have got married at all. They had never been such good friends as during the last fortnight.
The wheels began to turn. Ralph gripped Claude's hand, ran to the front of the car and stepped off. As Claude passed him, he stood waving his handkerchief,—a rather funny figure under the station lights, in his black clothes and his stiff straw hat, his short legs well apart, wearing his incurably jaunty air.
The train glided quietly out through the summer darkness, along the timbered river valley. Claude was alone on the back platform, smoking a nervous cigar. As they passed the deep cut where Lovely Creek flowed into the river, he saw the lights of the mill house flash for a moment in the distance. The night air was still; heavy with the smell of sweet clover that grew high along the tracks, and of wild grapevines wet with dew. The conductor came to ask for the tickets, saying with a wise smile that he had been hunting for him, as he didn't like to trouble the lady.
After he was gone, Claude looked at his watch, threw away the end of his cigar, and went back through the Pullman cars. The passengers had gone to bed; the overhead lights were always turned low when the train left Frankfort. He made his way through the aisles of swaying green curtains, and tapped at the door of his state room. It opened a little way, and Enid stood there in a white silk dressing-gown with many ruffles, her hair in two smooth braids over her shoulders.
"Claude," she said in a low voice, "would you mind getting a berth somewhere out in the car tonight? The porter says they are not all taken. I'm not feeling very well. I think the dressing on the chicken salad must have been too rich."
He answered mechanically. "Yes, certainly. Can't I get you something?"
"No, thank you. Sleep will do me more good than anything else. Good-night."
She closed the door, and he heard the lock slip. He stood looking at the highly polished wood of the panel for a moment, then turned irresolutely and went back along the slightly swaying aisle of green curtains. In the observation car he stretched himself out upon two wicker chairs and lit another cigar. At twelve o'clock the porter came in.
"This car is closed for the night, sah. Is you the gen'leman from the stateroom in fourteen? Do you want a lower?"
"No, thank you. Is there a smoking car?"
"They is the day-coach smokah, but it ain't likely very clean at this time o' night."
"That's all right. It's forward?" Claude absently handed him a coin, and the porter conducted him to a very dirty car where the floor was littered with newspapers and cigar stumps, and the leather cushions were grey with dust. A few desperate looking men lay about with their shoes off and their suspenders hanging down their backs. The sight of them reminded Claude that his left foot was very sore, and that his shoes must have been hurting him for some time. He pulled them off, and thrust his feet, in their silk socks, on the opposite seat.
On that long, dirty, uncomfortable ride Claude felt many things, but the paramount feeling was homesickness. His hurt was of a kind that made him turn with a sort of aching cowardice to the old, familiar things that were as sure as the sunrise. If only the sagebrush plain, over which the stars were shining, could suddenly break up and resolve itself into the windings of Lovely Creek, with his father's house on the hill, dark and silent in the summer night! When he closed his eyes he could see the light in his mother's window; and, lower down, the glow of Mahailey's lamp, where she sat nodding and mending his old shirts. Human love was a wonderful thing, he told himself, and it was most wonderful where it had least to gain.
By morning the storm of anger, disappointment, and humiliation that was boiling in him when he first sat down in the observation car, had died out. One thing lingered; the peculiarly casual, indifferent, uninterested tone of his wife's voice when she sent him away. It was the flat tone in which people make commonplace remarks about common things.
Day broke with silvery brightness on the summer sage. The sky grew pink, the sand grew gold. The dawn-wind brought through the windows the acrid smell of the sagebrush: an odour that is peculiarly stimulating in the early morning, when it always seems to promise freedom... large spaces, new beginnings, better days.
The train was due in Denver at eight o'clock. Exactly at seven thirty Claude knocked at Enid's door,—this time firmly. She was dressed, and greeted him with a fresh, smiling face, holding her hat in her hand.
"Are you feeling better?" he asked.
"Oh, yes! I am perfectly all right this morning. I've put out all your things for you, there on the seat."
He glanced at them. "Thank you. But I won't have time to change, I'm afraid."
"Oh, won't you? I'm so sorry I forgot to give you your bag last night. But you must put on another necktie, at least. You look too much like a groom."
"Do I?" he asked, with a scarcely perceptible curl of his lip.
Everything he needed was neatly arranged on the plush seat; shirt, collar, tie, brushes, even a handkerchief. Those in his pockets were black from dusting off the cinders that blew in all night, and he threw them down and took up the clean one. There was a damp spot on it, and as he unfolded it he recognized the scent of a cologne Enid often used. For some reason this attention unmanned him. He felt the smart of tears in his eyes, and to hide them bent over the metal basin and began to scrub his face. Enid stood behind him, adjusting her hat in the mirror.
"How terribly smoky you are, Claude. I hope you don't smoke before breakfast?"
"No. I was in the smoking car awhile. I suppose my clothes got full of it."
"You are covered with dust and cinders, too!" She took the clothes broom from the rack and began to brush him.
Claude caught her hand. "Don't, please!" he said sharply. "The porter can do that for me."
Enid watched him furtively as he closed and strapped his suitcase. She had often heard that men were cross before breakfast.
"Sure you've forgotten nothing?" he asked before he closed her bag.
"Yes. I never lose things on the train,—do you?"
"Sometimes," he replied guardedly, not looking up as he snapped the catch.
Book Three; Sunrise on the Prairie
Claude was to continue farming with his father, and after he returned from his wedding journey, he fell at once to work. The harvest was almost as abundant as that of the summer before, and he was busy in the fields six days a week.
One afternoon in August he came home with his team, watered and fed the horses in a leisurely way, and then entered his house by the back door. Enid, he knew, would not be there. She had gone to Frankfort to a meeting of the Anti-Saloon League. The Prohibition party was bestirring itself in Nebraska that summer, confident of voting the State dry the following year, which purpose it triumphantly accomplished.
Enid's kitchen, full of the afternoon sun, glittered with new paint, spotless linoleum, and blue-and-white cooking vessels. In the dining-room the cloth was laid, and the table was neatly set for one. Claude opened the icebox, where his supper was arranged for him; a dish of canned salmon with a white sauce; hardboiled eggs, peeled and lying in a nest of lettuce leaves; a bowl of ripe tomatoes, a bit of cold rice pudding; cream and butter. He placed these things on the table, cut some bread, and after carelessly washing his face and hands, sat down to eat in his working shirt. He propped the newspaper against a red glass water pitcher and read the war news while he had his supper. He was annoyed when he heard heavy footsteps coming around the house. Leonard Dawson stuck his head in at the kitchen door, and Claude rose quickly and reached for his hat; but Leonard came in, uninvited, and sat down. His brown shirt was wet where his suspenders gripped his shoulders, and his face, under a wide straw hat which he did not remove, was unshaven and streaked with dust.
"Go ahead and finish your supper," he cried. "Having a wife with a car of her own is next thing to having no wife at all. How they do like to roll around! I've been mighty blamed careful to see that Susie never learned to drive a car. See here, Claude, how soon do you figure you'll be able to let me have the thrasher? My wheat will begin to sprout in the shock pretty soon. Do you reckon your father would be willing to work on Sunday, if I helped you, to let the machine off a day earlier?"
"I'm afraid not. Mother wouldn't like it. We never have done that, even when we were crowded."
"Well, I think I'll go over and have a talk with your mother. If she could look inside my wheat shocks, maybe I could convince her it's pretty near a case of your neighbour's ox falling into a pit on the Sabbath day."
"That's a good idea. She's always reasonable."
Leonard rose. "What's the news?"
"The Germans have torpedoed an English passenger ship, the Arabic; coming this way, too."
"That's all right," Leonard declared. "Maybe Americans will stay at home now, and mind their own business. I don't care how they chew each other up over there, not a bit! I'd as soon one got wiped off the map as another."
"Your grandparents were English people, weren't they?"
"That's a long while ago. Yes, my grandmother wore a cap and little white curls, and I tell Susie I wouldn't mind if the baby turned out to have my grandmother's skin. She had the finest complexion I ever saw."
As they stepped out of the back door, a troop of white chickens with red combs ran squawking toward them. It was the hour at which the poultry was usually fed. Leonard stopped to admire them. "You've got a fine lot of hens. I always did like white leghorns. Where are all your roosters?"
"We've only got one. He's shut up in the coop. The brood hens are setting. Enid is going to try raising winter frys."
"Only one rooster? And may I ask what these hens do?"
Claude laughed. "They lay eggs, just the same,—better. It's the fertile eggs that spoil in warm weather."
This information seemed to make Leonard angry. "I never heard of such damned nonsense," he blustered. "I raise chickens on a natural basis, or I don't raise 'em at all." He jumped into his car for fear he would say more.
When he got home his wife was lifting supper, and the baby sat near her in its buggy, playing with a rattle. Dirty and sweaty as he was, Leonard picked up the clean baby and began to kiss it and smell it, rubbing his stubbly chin in the soft creases of its neck. The little girl was beside herself with delight.
"Go and wash up for supper, Len," Susie called from the stove. He put down the baby and began splashing in the tin basin, talking with his eyes shut.
"Susie, I'm in an awful temper. I can't stand that damned wife of Claude's!"
She was spearing roasting ears out of a big iron pot and looked up through the steam. "Why, have you seen her? I was listening on the telephone this morning and heard her tell Bayliss she would be in town until late." "Oh, yes! She went to town all right, and he's over there eating a cold supper by himself. That woman's a fanatic. She ain't content with practising prohibition on humankind; she's begun now on the hens." While he placed the chairs and wheeled the baby up to the table, he explained Enid's method of raising poultry to his wife. She said she really didn't see any harm in it.
"Now be honest, Susie; did you ever know hens would keep on laying without a rooster?"
"No, I didn't, but I was brought up the old-fashioned way. Enid has poultry books and garden books, and all such things. I don't doubt she gets good ideas from them. But anyhow, you be careful. She's our nearest neighbour, and I don't want to have trouble with her."
"I'll have to keep out of her way, then. If she tries to do any missionary work among my chickens, I'll tell her a few home truths her husband's too bashful to tell her. It's my opinion she's got that boy cowed already."
"Now, Len, you know she won't bother your chickens. You keep quiet. But Claude does seem to sort of avoid people," Susie admitted, filling her husband's plate again. "Mrs. Joe Havel says Ernest don't go to Claude's any more. It seems Enid went over there and wanted Ernest to paste some Prohibition posters about fifteen million drunkards on their barn, for an example to the Bohemians. Ernest wouldn't do it, and told her he was going to vote for saloons, and Enid was quite spiteful, Mrs. Havel said. It's too bad, when those boys were such chums. I used to like to see them together." Susie spoke so kindly that her husband shot her a quick glance of shy affection.
"Do you suppose Claude relished having that preacher visiting them, when they hadn't been married two months? Sitting on the front porch in a white necktie every day, while Claude was out cutting wheat?"
"Well, anyhow, I guess Claude had more to eat when Brother Weldon was staying there. Preachers won't be fed on calories, or whatever it is Enid calls 'em," said Susie, who was given to looking on the bright side of things. "Claude's wife keeps a wonderful kitchen; but so could I, if I never cooked any more than she does."
Leonard gave her a meaning look. "I don't believe you would live with the sort of man you could feed out of a tin can."
"No, I don't believe I would." She pushed the buggy toward him. "Take her up, Daddy. She wants to play with you."
Leonard set the baby on his shoulder and carried her off to show her the pigs. Susie kept laughing to herself as she cleared the table and washed the dishes; she was much amused by what her husband had told her.
Late that evening, when Leonard was starting for the barn to see that all was well before he went to bed, he observed a discreet black object rolling along the highroad in the moonlight, a red spark winking in the rear. He called Susie to the door.
"See, there she goes; going home to report the success of the meeting to Claude. Wouldn't that be a nice way to have your wife coming in?"
"Now, Leonard, if Claude likes it—"
"Likes it?" Big Leonard drew himself up. "What can he do, poor kid? He's stung!"
After Leonard left him, Claude cleared away the remains of his supper and watered the gourd vine before he went to milk. It was not really a gourd vine at all, but a summer-squash, of the crook-necked, warty, orange-coloured variety, and it was now full of ripe squashes, hanging by strong stems among the rough green leaves and prickly tendrils. Claude had watched its rapid growth and the opening of its splotchy yellow blossoms, feeling grateful to a thing that did so lustily what it was put there to do. He had the same feeling for his little Jersey cow, which came home every night with full udders and gave down her milk willingly, keeping her tail out of his face, as only a well disposed cow will do.
His milking done, he sat down on the front porch and lit a cigar. While he smoked, he did not think about anything but the quiet and the slow cooling of the atmosphere, and how good it was to sit still. The moon swam up over the bare wheat fields, big and magical, like a great flower. Presently he got some bath towels, went across the yard to the windmill, took off his clothes, and stepped into the tin horse tank. The water had been warmed by the sun all afternoon, and was not much cooler than his body. He stretched himself out in it, and resting his head on the metal rim, lay on his back, looking up at the moon. The sky was a midnight-blue, like warm, deep, blue water, and the moon seemed to lie on it like a water-lily, floating forward with an invisible current. One expected to see its great petals open.
For some reason, Claude began to think about the far-off times and countries it had shone upon. He never thought of the sun as coming from distant lands, or as having taken part in human life in other ages. To him, the sun rotated about the wheatfields. But the moon, somehow, came out of the historic past, and made him think of Egypt and the Pharaohs, Babylon and the hanging gardens. She seemed particularly to have looked down upon the follies and disappointments of men; into the slaves' quarters of old times, into prison windows, and into fortresses where captives languished.
Inside of living people, too, captives languished. Yes, inside of people who walked and worked in the broad sun, there were captives dwelling in darkness, never seen from birth to death. Into those prisons the moon shone, and the prisoners crept to the windows and looked out with mournful eyes at the white globe which betrayed no secrets and comprehended all. Perhaps even in people like Mrs. Royce and his brother Bayliss there was something of this sort—but that was a shuddery thought. He dismissed it with a quick movement of his hand through the water, which, disturbed, caught the light and played black and gold, like something alive, over his chest. In his own mother the imprisoned spirit was almost more present to people than her corporeal self. He had so often felt it when he sat with her on summer nights like this. Mahailey, too, had one, though the walls of her prison were so thick—and Gladys Farmer. Oh, yes, how much Gladys must have to tell this perfect confidant! The people whose hearts were set high needed such intercourse—whose wish was so beautiful that there were no experiences in this world to satisfy it. And these children of the moon, with their unappeased longings and futile dreams, were a finer race than the children of the sun. This conception flooded the boy's heart like a second moonrise, flowed through him indefinite and strong, while he lay deathly still for fear of losing it.
At last the black cubical object which had caught Leonard Dawson's wrathful eye, came rolling along the highroad. Claude snatched up his clothes and towels, and without waiting to make use of either, he ran, a white man across a bare white yard. Gaining the shelter of the house, he found his bathrobe, and fled to the upper porch, where he lay down in the hammock. Presently he heard his name called, pronounced as if it were spelled "Clod." His wife came up the stairs and looked out at him. He lay motionless, with his eyes closed. She went away. When all was quiet again he looked off at the still country, and the moon in the dark indigo sky. His revelation still possessed him, making his whole body sensitive, like a tightly strung bow. In the morning he had forgotten, or was ashamed of what had seemed so true and so entirely his own the night before. He agreed, for the most part, that it was better not to think about such things, and when he could he avoided thinking.
After the heavy work of harvest was over, Mrs. Wheeler often persuaded her husband, when he was starting off in his buckboard, to take her as far as Claude's new house. She was glad Enid didn't keep her parlour dark, as Mrs. Royce kept hers. The doors and windows were always open, the vines and the long petunias in the window-boxes waved in the breeze, and the rooms were full of sunlight and in perfect order. Enid wore white dresses about her work, and white shoes and stockings. She managed a house easily and systematically. On Monday morning Claude turned the washing machine before he went to work, and by nine o'clock the clothes were on the line. Enid liked to iron, and Claude had never before in his life worn so many clean shirts, or worn them with such satisfaction. She told him he need not economize in working shirts; it was as easy to iron six as three.
Although within a few months Enid's car travelled more than two thousand miles for the Prohibition cause, it could not be said that she neglected her house for reform. Whether she neglected her husband depended upon one's conception of what was his due. When Mrs. Wheeler saw how well their little establishment was conducted, how cheerful and attractive Enid looked when one happened to drop in there, she wondered that Claude was not happy. And Claude himself wondered. If his marriage disappointed him in some respects, he ought to be a man, he told himself, and make the best of what was good in it. If his wife didn't love him, it was because love meant one thing to him and quite another thing to her. She was proud of him, was glad to see him when he came in from the fields, and was solicitous for his comfort. Everything about a man's embrace was distasteful to Enid; something inflicted upon women, like the pain of childbirth,— for Eve's transgression, perhaps.
This repugnance was more than physical; she disliked ardour of any kind, even religious ardour. She had been fonder of Claude before she married him than she was now; but she hoped for a readjustment. Perhaps sometime she could like him again in exactly the same way. Even Brother Weldon had hinted to her that for the sake of their future tranquillity she must be lenient with the boy. And she thought she had been lenient. She could not understand his moods of desperate silence, the bitter, biting remarks he sometimes dropped, his evident annoyance if she went over to join him in the timber claim when he lay there idle in the deep grass on a Sunday afternoon.
Claude used to lie there and watch the clouds, saying to himself, "It's the end of everything for me." Other men than he must have been disappointed, and he wondered how they bore it through a lifetime. Claude had been a well behaved boy because he was an idealist; he had looked forward to being wonderfully happy in love, and to deserving his happiness. He had never dreamed that it might be otherwise.
Sometimes now, when he went out into the fields on a bright summer morning, it seemed to him that Nature not only smiled, but broadly laughed at him. He suffered in his pride, but even more in his ideals, in his vague sense of what was beautiful. Enid could make his life hideous to him without ever knowing it. At such times he hated himself for accepting at all her grudging hospitality. He was wronging something in himself.
In her person Enid was still attractive to him. He wondered why she had no shades of feeling to correspond to her natural grace and lightness of movement, to the gentle, almost wistful attitudes of body in which he sometimes surprised her. When he came in from work and found her sitting on the porch, leaning against a pillar, her hands clasped about her knees, her head drooping a little, he could scarcely believe in the rigidity which met him at every turn. Was there something repellent in him? Was it, after all, his fault?
Enid was rather more indulgent with his father than with any one else, he noticed. Mr. Wheeler stopped to see her almost every day, and even took her driving in his old buckboard. Bayliss came out from town to spend the evening occasionally. Enid's vegetarian suppers suited him, and as she worked with him in the Prohibition campaign, they always had business to discuss. Bayliss had a social as well as a hygienic prejudice against alcohol, and he hated it less for the harm it did than for the pleasure it gave. Claude consistently refused to take any part in the activities of the Anti-Saloon League, or to distribute what Bayliss and Enid called "our literature."
In the farming towns the term "literature" was applied only to a special kind of printed matter; there was Prohibition literature, Sex-Hygiene literature, and, during a scourge of cattle disease, there was Hoof-and-Mouth literature. This special application of the word didn't bother Claude, but his mother, being an old-fashioned school-teacher, complained about it.
Enid did not understand her husband's indifference to a burning question, and could only attribute it to the influence of Ernest Havel. She sometimes asked Claude to go with her to one of her committee meetings. If it was a Sunday, he said he was tired and wanted to read the paper. If it was a week-day, he had something to do at the barn, or meant to clear out the timber claim. He did, indeed, saw off a few dead limbs, and cut down a tree the lightning had blasted. Further than that he wouldn't have let anybody clear the timber lot; he would have died defending it.
The timber claim was his refuge. In the open, grassy spots, shut in by the bushy walls of yellowing ash trees, he felt unmarried and free; free to smoke as much as he liked, and to read and dream. Some of his dreams would have frozen his young wife's blood with horror—and some would have melted his mother's heart with pity. To lie in the hot sun and look up at the stainless blue of the autumn sky, to hear the dry rustle of the leaves as they fell, and the sound of the bold squirrels leaping from branch to branch; to lie thus and let his imagination play with life—that was the best he could do. His thoughts, he told himself, were his own. He was no longer a boy. He went off into the timber claim to meet a young man more experienced and interesting than himself, who had not tied himself up with compromises.
From her upstairs window Mrs. Wheeler could see Claude moving back and forth in the west field, drilling wheat. She felt lonely for him. He didn't come home as often as he might. She had begun to wonder whether he was one of those people who are always discontented; but whatever his disappointments were, he kept them locked in his own breast. One had to learn the lessons of life. Nevertheless, it made her a little sad to see him so settled and indifferent at twenty-three.
After watching from the window for a few moments, she turned to the telephone and called up Claude's house, asking Enid whether she would mind if he came there for dinner. "Mahailey and I get lonesome with Mr. Wheeler away so much," she added.
"Why, no, Mother Wheeler, of course not." Enid spoke cheerfully, as she always did. "Have you any one there you can send over to tell him?"
"I thought I would walk over myself, Enid. It's not far, if I take my time."
Mrs. Wheeler left the house a little before noon and stopped at the creek to rest before she climbed the long hill. At the edge of the field she sat down against a grassy bank and waited until the horses came tramping up the long rows. Claude saw her and pulled them in.
"Anything wrong, Mother?" he called.
"Oh, no! I'm going to take you home for dinner with me, that's all. I telephoned Enid." He unhooked his team, and he and his mother started down the hill together, walking behind the horses. Though they had not been alone like this for a long while, she felt it best to talk about impersonal things.
"Don't let me forget to give you an article about the execution of that English nurse."
"Edith Cavell? I've read about it," he answered listlessly. "It's nothing to be surprised at. If they could sink the Lusitania, they could shoot an English nurse, certainly."
"Someway I feel as if this were different," his mother murmured. "It's like the hanging of John Brown. I wonder they could find soldiers to execute the sentence."
"Oh, I guess they have plenty of such soldiers!"
Mrs. Wheeler looked up at him. "I don't see how we can stay out of it much longer, do you? I suppose our army wouldn't be a drop in the bucket, even if we could get it over. They tell us we can be more useful in our agriculture and manufactories than we could by going into the war. I only hope it isn't campaign talk. I do distrust the Democrats."
Claude laughed. "Why, Mother, I guess there's no party politics in this."
She shook her head. "I've never yet found a public question in which there wasn't party politics. Well, we can only do our duty as it comes to us, and have faith. This field finishes your fall work?"
"Yes. I'll have time to do some things about the place, now. I'm going to make a good ice-house and put up my own ice this winter."
"Were you thinking of going up to Lincoln, for a little?"
"I guess not."
Mrs. Wheeler sighed. His tone meant that he had turned his back on old pleasures and old friends.
"Have you and Enid taken tickets for the lecture course in Frankfort?"
"I think so, Mother," he answered a little impatiently. "I told her she could attend to it when she was in town some day."
"Of course," his mother persevered, "some of the programs are not very good, but we ought to patronize them and make the best of what we have."
He knew, and his mother knew, that he was not very good at that. His horses stopped at the water tank. "Don't wait for me. I'll be along in a minute." Seeing her crestfallen face, he smiled. "Never mind, Mother, I can always catch you when you try to give me a pill in a raisin. One of us has to be pretty smart to fool the other."
She blinked up at him with that smile in which her eyes almost disappeared. "I thought I was smart that time!"
It was a comfort, she reflected, as she hurried up the hill, to get hold of him again, to get his attention, even.
While Claude was washing for dinner, Mahailey came to him with a page of newspaper cartoons, illustrating German brutality. To her they were all photographs,—she knew no other way of making a picture.
"Mr. Claude," she asked, "how comes it all them Germans is such ugly lookin' people? The Yoeders and the German folks round here ain't ugly lookin'."
Claude put her off indulgently. "Maybe it's the ugly ones that are doing the fighting, and the ones at home are nice, like our neighbours."
"Then why don't they make their soldiers stay home, an' not go breakin' other people's things, an' turnin' 'em out of their houses," she muttered indignantly. "They say little babies was born out in the snow last winter, an' no fires for their mudders nor nothin'. 'Deed, Mr. Claude, it wasn't like that in our war; the soldiers didn't do nothin' to the women an' chillun. Many a time our house was full of Northern soldiers, an' they never so much as broke a piece of my mudder's chiney."
"You'll have to tell me about it again sometime, Mahailey. I must have my dinner and get back to work. If we don't get our wheat in, those people over there won't have anything to eat, you know."
The picture papers meant a great deal to Mahailey, because she could faintly remember the Civil War. While she pored over photographs of camps and battlefields and devastated villages, things came back to her; the companies of dusty Union infantry that used to stop to drink at her mother's cold mountain spring. She had seen them take off their boots and wash their bleeding feet in the run. Her mother had given one louse-bitten boy a clean shirt, and she had never forgotten the sight of his back, "as raw as beef where he'd scratched it." Five of her brothers were in the Confederate army. When one was wounded in the second battle of Bull Run, her mother had borrowed a wagon and horses, gone a three days' journey to the field hospital, and brought the boy home to the mountain. Mahailey could remember how her older sisters took turns pouring cold spring water on his gangrenous leg all day and all night. There were no doctors left in the neighbourhood, and as nobody could amputate the boy's leg, he died by inches. Mahailey was the only person in the Wheeler household who had ever seen war with her own eyes, and she felt that this fact gave her a definite superiority.
Claude had been married a year and a half. One December morning he got a telephone message from his father-in-law, asking him to come in to Frankfort at once. He found Mr. Royce sunk in his desk-chair, smoking as usual, with several foreign-looking letters on the table before him. As he took these out of their envelopes and sorted the pages, Claude noticed how unsteady his hands had become.
One letter, from the chief of the medical staff in the mission school where Caroline Royce taught, informed Mr. Royce that his daughter was seriously ill in the mission hospital. She would have to be sent to a more salubrious part of the country for rest and treatment, and would not be strong enough to return to her duties for a year or more. If some member of her family could come out to take care of her, it would relieve the school authorities of great anxiety. There was also a letter from a fellow teacher, and a rather incoherent one from Caroline herself. After Claude finished reading them, Mr. Royce pushed a box of cigars toward him and began to talk despondently about missionaries.
"I could go to her," he complained, "but what good would that do? I'm not in sympathy with her ideas, and it would only fret her. You can see she's made her mind up not to come home. I don't believe in one people trying to force their ways or their religion on another. I'm not that kind of man." He sat looking at his cigar. After a long pause he broke out suddenly, "China has been drummed into my ears. It seems like a long way to go to hunt for trouble, don't it? A man hasn't got much control over his own life, Claude. If it ain't poverty or disease that torments him, it's a name on the map. I could have made out pretty well, if it hadn't been for China, and some other things.... If Carrie'd had to teach for her clothes and help pay off my notes, like old man Harrison's daughters, like enough she'd have stayed at home. There's always something. I don't know what to say about showing these letters to Enid."
"Oh, she will have to know about it, Mr. Royce. If she feels that she ought to go to Carrie, it wouldn't be right for me to interfere."
Mr. Royce shook his head. "I don't know. It don't seem fair that China should hang over you, too."
When Claude got home he remarked as he handed Enid the letters, "Your father has been a good deal upset by this. I never saw him look so old as he did today."
Enid studied their contents, sitting at her orderly little desk, while Claude pretended to read the paper.
"It seems clear that I am the one to go," she said when she had finished.
"You think it's necessary for some one to go? I don't see it."
"It would look very strange if none of us went," Enid replied with spirit.
"How, look strange?"
"Why, it would look to her associates as if her family had no feeling."
"Oh, if that's all!" Claude smiled perversely and took up his paper again. "I wonder how it will look to people here if you go off and leave your husband?"
"What a mean thing to say, Claude!" She rose sharply, then hesitated, perplexed. "People here know me better than that. It isn't as if you couldn't be perfectly comfortable at your mother's." As he did not glance up from his paper, she went into the kitchen.
Claude sat still, listening to Enid's quick movements as she opened up the range to get supper. The light in the room grew greyer. Outside the fields melted into one another as evening came on. The young trees in the yard bent and whipped about under a bitter north wind. He had often thought with pride that winter died at his front doorstep; within, no draughty halls, no chilly corners. This was their second year here. When he was driving home, the thought that he might be free of this house for a long while had stirred a pleasant excitement in him; but now, he didn't want to leave it. Something grew soft in him. He wondered whether they couldn't try again, and make things go better. Enid was singing in the kitchen in a subdued, rather lonely voice. He rose and went out for his milking coat and pail. As he passed his wife by the window, he stopped and put his arm about her questioningly.
She looked up. "That's right. You're feeling better about it, aren't you? I thought you would. Gracious, what a smelly coat, Claude! I must find another for you."
Claude knew that tone. Enid never questioned the rightness of her own decisions. When she made up her mind, there was no turning her. He went down the path to the barn with his hands stuffed in his trousers pockets, his bright pail hanging on his arm. Try again—what was there to try? Platitudes, littleness, falseness.... His life was choking him, and he hadn't the courage to break with it. Let her go! Let her go when she would!... What a hideous world to be born into! Or was it hideous only for him? Everything he touched went wrong under his hand—always had.
When they sat down at the supper table in the back parlour an hour later, Enid looked worn, as if this time her decision had cost her something. "I should think you might have a restful winter at your mother's," she began cheerfully. "You won't have nearly so much to look after as you do here. We needn't disturb things in this house. I will take the silver down to Mother, and we can leave everything else just as it is. Would there be room for my car in your father's garage? You might find it a convenience."
"Oh, no! I won't need it. I'll put it up at the mill house," he answered with an effort at carelessness.
All the familiar objects that stood about them in the lamplight seemed stiller and more solemn than usual, as if they were holding their breath.
"I suppose you had better take the chickens over to your mother's," Enid continued evenly. "But I shouldn't like them to get mixed with her Plymouth Rocks; there's not a dark feather among them now. Do ask Mother Wheeler to use all the eggs, and not to let my hens set in the spring."
"In the spring?" Claude looked up from his plate.
"Of course, Claude. I could hardly get back before next fall, if I'm to be of any help to poor Carrie. I might try to be home for harvest, if that would make it more convenient for you." She rose to bring in the dessert.
"Oh, don't hurry on my account!" he muttered, staring after her disappearing figure.
Enid came back with the hot pudding and the after-dinner coffee things. "This has come on us so suddenly that we must make our plans at once," she explained. "I should think your mother would be glad to keep Rose for us; she is such a good cow. And then you can have all the cream you want."
He took the little gold-rimmed cup she held out to him. "If you are going to be gone until next fall, I shall sell Rose," he announced gruffly.
"But why? You might look a long time before you found another like her."
"I shall sell her, anyhow. The horses, of course, are Father's; he paid for them. If you clear out, he may want to rent this place. You may find a tenant in here when you get back from China." Claude swallowed his coffee, put down the cup, and went into the front parlour, where he lit a cigar. He walked up and down, keeping his eyes fixed upon his wife, who still sat at the table in the circle of light from the hanging lamp. Her head, bent forward a little, showed the neat part of her brown hair. When she was perplexed, her face always looked sharper, her chin longer.
"If you've no feeling for the place," said Claude from the other room, "you can hardly expect me to hang around and take care of it. All the time you were campaigning, I played housekeeper here."
Enid's eyes narrowed, but she did not flush. Claude had never seen a wave of colour come over his wife's pale, smooth cheeks.
"Don't be childish. You know I care for this place; it's our home. But no feeling would be right that kept me from doing my duty. You are well, and you have your mother's house to go to. Carrie is ill and among strangers."
She began to gather up the dishes. Claude stepped quickly out into the light and confronted her. "It's not only your going. You know what's the matter with me. It's because you want to go. You are glad of a chance to get away among all those preachers, with their smooth talk and make-believe."
Enid took up the tray. "If I am glad, it's because you are not willing to govern our lives by Christian ideals. There is something in you that rebels all the time. So many important questions have come up since our marriage, and you have been indifferent or sarcastic about every one of them. You want to lead a purely selfish life."
She walked resolutely out of the room and shut the door behind her. Later, when she came back, Claude was not there. His hat and coat were gone from the hat rack; he must have let himself out quietly by the front door. Enid sat up until eleven and then went to bed.
In the morning, on coming out from her bedroom, she found Claude asleep on the lounge, dressed, with his overcoat on. She had a moment of terror and bent over him, but she could not detect any smell of spirits. She began preparations for breakfast, moving quietly.
Having once made up her mind to go out to her sister, Enid lost no time. She engaged passage and cabled the mission school. She left Frankfort the week before Christmas. Claude and Ralph took her as far as Denver and put her on a trans-continental express. When Claude came home, he moved over to his mother's, and sold his cow and chickens to Leonard Dawson. Except when he went to see Mr. Royce, he seldom left the farm now, and he avoided the neighbours. He felt that they were discussing his domestic affairs,—as, of course, they were. The Royces and the Wheelers, they said, couldn't behave like anybody else, and it was no use their trying. If Claude built the best house in the neighbourhood, he just naturally wouldn't live in it. And if he had a wife at all, it was like him to have a wife in China!
One snowy day, when nobody was about, Claude took the big car and went over to his own place to close the house for the winter and bring away the canned fruit and vegetables left in the cellar. Enid had packed her best linen in her cedar chest and had put the kitchen and china closets in scrupulous order before she went away. He began covering the upholstered chairs and the mattresses with sheets, rolled up the rugs, and fastened the windows securely. As he worked, his hands grew more and more numb and listless, and his heart was like a lump of ice. All these things that he had selected with care and in which he had taken such pride, were no more to him now than the lumber piled in the shop of any second-hand dealer.
How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed! The debris of human life was more worthless and ugly than the dead and decaying things in nature. Rubbish... junk... his mind could not picture anything that so exposed and condemned all the dreary, weary, ever-repeated actions by which life is continued from day to day. Actions without meaning.... As he looked out and saw the grey landscape through the gently falling snow, he could not help thinking how much better it would be if people could go to sleep like the fields; could be blanketed down under the snow, to wake with their hurts healed and their defeats forgotten. He wondered how he was to go on through the years ahead of him, unless he could get rid of this sick feeling in his soul.
At last he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and went over to the timber claim to smoke a cigar and say goodbye to the place. There he soberly walked about for more than an hour, under the crooked trees with empty birds' nests in their forks. Every time he came to a break in the hedge, he could see the little house, giving itself up so meekly to solitude. He did not believe that he would ever live there again. Well, at any rate, the money his father had put into the place would not be lost; he could always get a better tenant for having a comfortable house there. Several of the boys in the neighbourhood were planning to be married within the year. The future of the house was safe. And he? He stopped short in his walk; his feet had made an uncertain, purposeless trail all over the white ground. It vexed him to see his own footsteps. What was it—what WAS the matter with him? Why, at least, could he not stop feeling things, and hoping? What was there to hope for now?
He heard a sound of distress, and looking back, saw the barn cat, that had been left behind to pick up her living. She was standing inside the hedge, her jet black fur ruffled against the wet flakes, one paw lifted, mewing miserably. Claude went over and picked her up.
"What's the matter, Blackie? Mice getting scarce in the barn? Mahailey will say you are bad luck. Maybe you are, but you can't help it, can you?" He slipped her into his overcoat pocket. Later, when he was getting into his car, he tried to dislodge her and put her in a basket, but she clung to her nest in his pocket and dug her claws into the lining. He laughed. "Well, if you are bad luck, I guess you are going to stay right with me!"
She looked up at him with startled yellow eyes and did not even mew.
Mrs. Wheeler was afraid that Claude might not find the old place comfortable, after having had a house of his own. She put her best rocking chair and a reading lamp in his bedroom. He often sat there all evening, shading his eyes with his hand, pretending to read. When he stayed downstairs after supper, his mother and Mahailey were grateful. Besides collecting war pictures, Mahailey now hunted through the old magazines in the attic for pictures of China. She had marked on her big kitchen calendar the day when Enid would arrive in Hong-Kong.
"Mr. Claude," she would say as she stood at the sink washing the supper dishes, "it's broad daylight over where Miss Enid is, ain't it? Cause the world's round, an' the old sun, he's a-shinin' over there for the yaller people."
From time to time, when they were working together, Mrs. Wheeler told Mahailey what she knew about the customs of the Chinese. The old woman had never had two impersonal interests at the same time before, and she scarcely knew what to do with them. She would murmur on, half to Claude and half to herself: "They ain't fightin' over there where Miss Enid is, is they? An' she won't have to wear their kind of clothes, cause she's a white woman. She won't let 'em kill their girl babies nor do such awful things like they always have, an' she won't let 'em pray to them stone iboles, cause they can't help 'em none. I 'spect Miss Enid'll do a heap of good, all the time."
Behind her diplomatic monologues, however, Mahailey had her own ideas, and she was greatly scandalized at Enid's departure. She was afraid people would say that Claude's wife had "run off an' lef' him," and in the Virginia mountains, where her social standards had been formed, a husband or wife thus deserted was the object of boisterous ridicule. She once stopped Mrs. Wheeler in a dark corner of the cellar to whisper, "Mr. Claude's wife ain't goin' to stay off there, like her sister, is she?"
If one of the Yoeder boys or Susie Dawson happened to be at the Wheelers' for dinner, Mahailey never failed to refer to Enid in a loud voice. "Mr. Claude's wife, she cuts her potatoes up raw in the pan an' fries 'em. She don't boil 'em first like I do. I know she's an awful good cook, I know she is." She felt that easy references to the absent wife made things look better.
Ernest Havel came to see Claude now, but not often. They both felt it would be indelicate to renew their former intimacy. Ernest still felt aggrieved about his beer, as if Enid had snatched the tankard from his lips with her own corrective hand. Like Leonard, he believed that Claude had made a bad bargain in matrimony; but instead of feeling sorry for him, Ernest wanted to see him convinced and punished. When he married Enid, Claude had been false to liberal principles, and it was only right that he should pay for his apostasy. The very first time he came to spend an evening at the Wheelers' after Claude came home to live, Ernest undertook to explain his objections to Prohibition. Claude shrugged his shoulders.
"Why not drop it? It's a matter that doesn't interest me, one way or the other."
Ernest was offended and did not come back for nearly a month—not, indeed, until the announcement that Germany would resume unrestricted submarine warfare made every one look questioningly at his neighbour.
He walked into the Wheelers' kitchen the night after this news reached the farming country, and found Claude and his mother sitting at the table, reading the papers aloud to each other in snatches. Ernest had scarcely taken a seat when the telephone bell rang. Claude answered the call.
"It's the telegraph operator at Frankfort," he said, as he hung up the receiver. "He repeated a message from Father, sent from Wray: 'Will be home day after tomorrow. Read the papers.' What does he mean? What does he suppose we are doing?"
"It means he considers our situation very serious. It's not like him to telegraph except in case of illness." Mrs. Wheeler rose and walked distractedly to the telephone box, as if it might further disclose her husband's state of mind.
"But what a queer message! It was addressed to you, too, Mother, not to me."
"He would know how I feel about it. Some of your father's people were seagoing men, out of Portsmouth. He knows what it means when our shipping is told where it can go on the ocean, and where it cannot. It isn't possible that Washington can take such an affront for us. To think that at this time, of all times, we should have a Democratic administration!"
Claude laughed. "Sit down, Mother. Wait a day or two. Give them time."
"The war will be over before Washington can do anything, Mrs. Wheeler," Ernest declared gloomily, "England will be starved out, and France will be beaten to a standstill. The whole German army will be on the Western front now. What could this country do? How long do you suppose it takes to make an army?"
Mrs. Wheeler stopped short in her restless pacing and met his moody glance. "I don't know anything, Ernest, but I believe the Bible. I believe that in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed!"
Ernest looked at the floor. He respected faith. As he said, you must respect it or despise it, for there was nothing else to do.
Claude sat leaning his elbows on the table. "It always comes back to the same thing, Mother. Even if a raw army could do anything, how would we get it over there? Here's one naval authority who says the Germans are turning out submarines at the rate of three a day. They probably didn't spring this on us until they had enough built to keep the ocean clear."
"I don't pretend to say what we could accomplish, son. But we must stand somewhere, morally. They have told us all along that we could be more helpful to the Allies out of the war than in it, because we could send munitions and supplies. If we agree to withdraw that aid, where are we? Helping Germany, all the time we are pretending to mind our own business! If our only alternative is to be at the bottom of the sea, we had better be there!"
"Mother, do sit down! We can't settle it tonight. I never saw you so worked up."
"Your father is worked up, too, or he would never have sent that telegram." Mrs. Wheeler reluctantly took up her workbasket, and the boys talked with their old, easy friendliness.
When Ernest left, Claude walked as far as the Yoeders' place with him, and came back across the snow-drifted fields, under the frosty brilliance of the winter stars. As he looked up at them, he felt more than ever that they must have something to do with the fate of nations, and with the incomprehensible things that were happening in the world. In the ordered universe there must be some mind that read the riddle of this one unhappy planet, that knew what was forming in the dark eclipse of this hour. A question hung in the air; over all this quiet land about him, over him, over his mother, even. He was afraid for his country, as he had been that night on the State House steps in Denver, when this war was undreamed of, hidden in the womb of time.
Claude and his mother had not long to wait. Three days later they knew that the German ambassador had been dismissed, and the American ambassador recalled from Berlin. To older men these events were subjects to think and converse about; but to boys like Claude they were life and death, predestination.
One stormy morning Claude was driving the big wagon to town to get a load of lumber. The roads were beginning to thaw out, and the country was black and dirty looking. Here and there on the dark mud, grey snow crusts lingered, perforated like honeycomb, with wet weedstalks sticking up through them. As the wagon creaked over the high ground just above Frankfort, Claude noticed a brilliant new flag flying from the schoolhouse cupola. He had never seen the flag before when it meant anything but the Fourth of July, or a political rally. Today it was as if he saw it for the first time; no bands, no noise, no orators; a spot of restless colour against the sodden March sky.
He turned out of his way in order to pass the High School, drew up his team, and waited a few minutes until the noon bell rang. The older boys and girls came out first, with a flurry of raincoats and umbrellas. Presently he saw Gladys Farmer, in a yellow "slicker" and an oilskin hat, and waved to her. She came up to the wagon.
"I like your decoration," he said, glancing toward the cupola.
"It's a silk one the Senior boys bought with their athletic money. I advised them not to run it up in this rain, but the class president told me they bought that flag for storms."
"Get in, and I'll take you home."
She took his extended hand, put her foot on the hub of the wheel, and climbed to the seat beside him. He clucked to his team.
"So your High School boys are feeling war-like these days?"
"Very. What do you think?"
"I think they'll have a chance to express their feelings."
"Do you, Claude? It seems awfully unreal."
"Nothing else seems very real, either. I'm going to haul out a load of lumber, but I never expect to drive a nail in it. These things don't matter now. There is only one thing we ought to do, and only one thing that matters; we all know it."
"You feel it's coming nearer every day?"
Gladys made no reply. She only looked at him gravely with her calm, generous brown eyes. They stopped before the low house where the windows were full of flowers. She took his hand and swung herself to the ground, holding it for a moment while she said good-bye. Claude drove back to the lumber yard. In a place like Frankfort, a boy whose wife was in China could hardly go to see Gladys without causing gossip.
During the bleak month of March Mr. Wheeler went to town in his buckboard almost every day. For the first time in his life he had a secret anxiety. The one member of his family who had never given him the slightest trouble, his son Bayliss, was just now under a cloud.
Bayliss was a Pacifist, and kept telling people that if only the United States would stay out of this war, and gather up what Europe was wasting, she would soon be in actual possession of the capital of the world. There was a kind of logic in Bayliss' utterances that shook Nat Wheeler's imperturbable assumption that one point of view was as good as another. When Bayliss fought the dram and the cigarette, Wheeler only laughed. That a son of his should turn out a Prohibitionist, was a joke he could appreciate. But Bayliss' attitude in the present crisis disturbed him. Day after day he sat about his son's place of business, interrupting his arguments with funny stories. Bayliss did not go home at all that month. He said to his father, "No, Mother's too violent. I'd better not."
Claude and his mother read the papers in the evening, but they talked so little about what they read that Mahailey inquired anxiously whether they weren't still fighting over yonder. When she could get Claude alone for a moment, she pulled out Sunday supplement pictures of the devastated countries and asked him to tell her what was to become of this family, photographed among the ruins of their home; of this old woman, who sat by the roadside with her bundles. "Where's she goin' to, anyways? See, Mr. Claude, she's got her iron cook-pot, pore old thing, carryin' it all the way!"
Pictures of soldiers in gas-masks puzzled her; gas was something she hadn't learned about in the Civil War, so she worked it out for herself that these masks were worn by the army cooks, to protect their eyes when they were cutting up onions! "All them onions they have to cut up, it would put their eyes out if they didn't wear somethin'," she argued.
On the morning of the eighth of April Claude came downstairs early and began to clean his boots, which were caked with dry mud. Mahailey was squatting down beside her stove, blowing and puffing into it. The fire was always slow to start in heavy weather. Claude got an old knife and a brush, and putting his foot on a chair over by the west window, began to scrape his shoe. He had said good-morning to Mahailey, nothing more. He hadn't slept well, and was pale.
"Mr. Claude," Mahailey grumbled, "this stove ain't never drawed good like my old one Mr. Ralph took away from me. I can't do nothin' with it. Maybe you'll clean it out for me next Sunday."
"I'll clean it today, if you say so. I won't be here next Sunday. I'm going away."
Something in his tone made Mahailey get up, her eyes still blinking with the smoke, and look at him sharply. "You ain't goin' off there where Miss Enid is?" she asked anxiously.
"No, Mahailey." He had dropped the shoebrush and stood with one foot on the chair, his elbow on his knee, looking out of the window as if he had forgotten himself. "No, I'm not going to China. I'm going over to help fight the Germans."
He was still staring out at the wet fields. Before he could stop her, before he knew what she was doing, she had caught and kissed his unworthy hand.
"I knowed you would," she sobbed. "I always knowed you would, you nice boy, you! Old Mahail' knowed!"
Her upturned face was working all over; her mouth, her eyebrows, even the wrinkles on her low forehead were working and twitching. Claude felt a tightening in his throat as he tenderly regarded that face; behind the pale eyes, under the low brow where there was not room for many thoughts, an idea was struggling and tormenting her. The same idea that had been tormenting him.
"You're all right, Mahailey," he muttered, patting her back and turning away. "Now hurry breakfast."
"You ain't told your mudder yit?" she whispered.
"No, not yet. But she'll be all right, too." He caught up his cap and went down to the barn to look after the horses.
When Claude returned, the family were already at the breakfast table. He slipped into his seat and watched his mother while she drank her first cup of coffee. Then he addressed his father.
"Father, I don't see any use of waiting for the draft. If you can spare me, I'd like to get into a training camp somewhere. I believe I'd stand a chance of getting a commission."
"I shouldn't wonder." Mr. Wheeler poured maple syrup on his pancakes with a liberal hand. "How do you feel about it, Evangeline?"
Mrs. Wheeler had quietly put down her knife and fork. She looked at her husband in vague alarm, while her fingers moved restlessly about over the tablecloth.
"I thought," Claude went on hastily, "that maybe I would go up to Omaha tomorrow and find out where the training camps are to be located, and have a talk with the men in charge of the enlistment station. Of course," he added lightly, "they may not want me. I haven't an idea what the requirements are."
"No, I don't understand much about it either." Mr. Wheeler rolled his top pancake and conveyed it to his mouth. After a moment of mastication he said, "You figure on going tomorrow?"
"I'd like to. I won't bother with baggage—some shirts and underclothes in my suitcase. If the Government wants me, it will clothe me."
Mr. Wheeler pushed back his plate. "Well, now I guess you'd better come out with me and look at the wheat. I don't know but I'd best plough up that south quarter and put it in corn. I don't believe it will make anything much."
When Claude and his father went out of the door, Dan sprang up with more alacrity than usual and plunged after them. He did not want to be left alone with Mrs. Wheeler. She remained sitting at the foot of the deserted breakfast table. She was not crying. Her eyes were utterly sightless. Her back was so stooped that she seemed to be bending under a burden. Mahailey cleared the dishes away quietly.
Out in the muddy fields Claude finished his talk with his father. He explained that he wanted to slip away without saying good-bye to any one. "I have a way, you know," he said, flushing, "of beginning things and not getting very far with them. I don't want anything said about this until I'm sure. I may be rejected for one reason or another."
Mr. Wheeler smiled. "I guess not. However, I'll tell Dan to keep his mouth shut. Will you just go over to Leonard Dawson's and get that wrench he borrowed? It's about noon, and he'll likely be at home." Claude found big Leonard watering his team at the windmill. When Leonard asked him what he thought of the President's message, he blurted out at once that he was going to Omaha to enlist. Leonard reached up and pulled the lever that controlled the almost motionless wheel.
"Better wait a few weeks and I'll go with you. I'm going to try for the Marines. They take my eye."
Claude, standing on the edge of the tank, almost fell backward. "Why, what—what for?"
Leonard looked him over. "Good Lord, Claude, you ain't the only fellow around here that wears pants! What for? Well, I'll tell you what for," he held up three large red fingers threateningly; "Belgium, the Lusitania, Edith Cavell. That dirt's got under my skin. I'll get my corn planted, and then Father'll look after Susie till I come back."
Claude took a long breath. "Well, Leonard, you fooled me. I believed all this chaff you've been giving me about not caring who chewed up who."
"And no more do I care," Leonard protested, "not a damn! But there's a limit. I've been ready to go since the Lusitania. I don't get any satisfaction out of my place any more. Susie feels the same way."
Claude looked at his big neighbour. "Well, I'm off tomorrow, Leonard. Don't mention it to my folks, but if I can't get into the army, I'm going to enlist in the navy. They'll always take an able-bodied man. I'm not coming back here." He held out his hand and Leonard took it with a smack.
"Good luck, Claude. Maybe we'll meet in foreign parts. Wouldn't that be a joke! Give my love to Enid when you write. I always did think she was a fine girl, though I disagreed with her on Prohibition." Claude crossed the fields mechanically, without looking where he went. His power of vision was turned inward upon scenes and events wholly imaginary as yet.
One bright June day Mr. Wheeler parked his car in a line of motors before the new pressed-brick Court house in Frankfort. The Court house stood in an open square, surrounded by a grove of cotton-woods. The lawn was freshly cut, and the flower beds were blooming. When Mr. Wheeler entered the courtroom upstairs, it was already half-full of farmers and townspeople, talking in low tones while the summer flies buzzed in and out of the open windows. The judge, a one-armed man, with white hair and side-whiskers, sat at his desk, writing with his left hand. He was an old settler in Frankfort county, but from his frockcoat and courtly manners you might have thought he had come from Kentucky yesterday instead of thirty years ago. He was to hear this morning a charge of disloyalty brought against two German farmers. One of the accused was August Yoeder, the Wheelers' nearest neighbour, and the other was Troilus Oberlies, a rich German from the northern part of the county.
Oberlies owned a beautiful farm and lived in a big white house set on a hill, with a fine orchard, rows of beehives, barns, granaries, and poultry yards. He raised turkeys and tumbler-pigeons, and many geese and ducks swam about on his cattleponds. He used to boast that he had six sons, "like our German Emperor." His neighbours were proud of his place, and pointed it out to strangers. They told how Oberlies had come to Frankfort county a poor man, and had made his fortune by his industry and intelligence. He had twice crossed the ocean to re-visit his fatherland, and when he returned to his home on the prairies he brought presents for every one; his lawyer, his banker, and the merchants with whom he dealt in Frankfort and Vicount. Each of his neighbours had in his parlour some piece of woodcarving or weaving, or some ingenious mechanical toy that Oberlies had picked up in Germany. He was an older man than Yoeder, wore a short beard that was white and curly, like his hair, and though he was low in stature, his puffy red face and full blue eyes, and a certain swagger about his carriage, gave him a look of importance. He was boastful and quick-tempered, but until the war broke out in Europe nobody had ever had any trouble with him. Since then he had constantly found fault and complained,—everything was better in the Old Country.
Mr. Wheeler had come to town prepared to lend Yoeder a hand if he needed one. They had worked adjoining fields for thirty years now. He was surprised that his neighbour had got into trouble. He was not a blusterer, like Oberlies, but a big, quiet man, with a serious, large-featured face, and a stern mouth that seldom opened. His countenance might have been cut out of red sandstone, it was so heavy and fixed. He and Oberlies sat on two wooden chairs outside the railing of the judge's desk.
Presently the judge stopped writing and said he would hear the charges against Troilus Oberlies. Several neighbours took the stand in succession; their complaints were confused and almost humorous. Oberlies had said the United States would be licked, and that would be a good thing; America was a great country, but it was run by fools, and to be governed by Germany was the best thing that could happen to it. The witness went on to say that since Oberlies had made his money in this country—
Here the judge interrupted him. "Please confine yourself to statements which you consider disloyal, made in your presence by the defendant." While the witness proceeded, the judge took off his glasses and laid them on the desk and began to polish the lenses with a silk handkerchief, trying them, and rubbing them again, as if he desired to see clearly.
A second witness had heard Oberlies say he hoped the German submarines would sink a few troopships; that would frighten the Americans and teach them to stay at home and mind their own business. A third complained that on Sunday afternoons the old man sat on his front porch and played Die Wacht am Rhein on a slide-trombone, to the great annoyance of his neighbours. Here Nat Wheeler slapped his knee with a loud guffaw, and a titter ran through the courtroom. The defendant's puffy red cheeks seemed fashioned by his Maker to give voice to that piercing instrument.
When asked if he had anything to say to these charges, the old man rose, threw back his shoulders, and cast a defiant glance at the courtroom. "You may take my property and imprison me, but I explain nothing, and I take back nothing," he declared in a loud voice.
The judge regarded his inkwell with a smile. "You mistake the nature of this occasion, Mr. Oberlies. You are not asked to recant. You are merely asked to desist from further disloyal utterances, as much for your own protection and comfort as from consideration for the feelings of your neighbours. I will now hear the charges against Mr. Yoeder."
Mr. Yoeder, a witness declared, had said he hoped the United States would go to Hell, now that it had been bought over by England. When the witness had remarked to him that if the Kaiser were shot it would end the war, Yoeder replied that charity begins at home, and he wished somebody would put a bullet in the President.
When he was called upon, Yoeder rose and stood like a rock before the judge. "I have nothing to say. The charges are true. I thought this was a country where a man could speak his mind."
"Yes, a man can speak his mind, but even here he must take the consequences. Sit down, please." The judge leaned back in his chair, and looking at the two men in front of him, began with deliberation: "Mr. Oberlies, and Mr. Yoeder, you both know, and your friends and neighbours know, why you are here. You have not recognized the element of appropriateness, which must be regarded in nearly all the transactions of life; many of our civil laws are founded upon it. You have allowed a sentiment, noble in itself, to carry you away and lead you to make extravagant statements which I am confident neither of you mean. No man can demand that you cease from loving the country of your birth; but while you enjoy the benefits of this country, you should not defame its government to extol another. You both admit to utterances which I can only adjudge disloyal. I shall fine you each three hundred dollars; a very light fine under the circumstances. If I should have occasion to fix a penalty a second time, it will be much more severe."