It was beginning to grow dark when Claude reached the farm. While Ralph stopped to put away the car, he walked on alone to the house. He never came back without emotion,--try as he would to pass lightly over these departures and returns which were all in the day's work. When he came up the hill like this, toward the tall house with its lighted windows, something always clutched at his heart. He both loved and hated to come home. He was always disappointed, and yet he always felt the rightness of returning to his own place. Even when it broke his spirit and humbled his pride, he felt it was right that he should be thus humbled. He didn't question that the lowest state of mind was the truest, and that the less a man thought of himself, the more likely he was to be correct in his estimate.
Approaching the door, Claude stopped a moment and peered in at the kitchen window. The table was set for supper, and Mahailey was at the stove, stirring something in a big iron pot; cornmeal mush, probably,--she often made it for herself now that her teeth had begun to fail. She stood leaning over, embracing the pot with one arm, and with the other she beat the stiff contents, nodding her head in time to this rotary movement. Confused emotions surged up in Claude. He went in quickly and gave her a bearish hug.
Her face wrinkled up in the foolish grin he knew so well. "Lord, how you scared me, Mr. Claude! A little more'n I'd 'a' had my mush all over the floor. You lookin' fine, you nice boy, you!"
He knew Mahailey was gladder to see him come home than any one except his mother. Hearing Mrs. Wheeler's wandering, uncertain steps in the enclosed stairway, he opened the door and ran halfway up to meet her, putting his arm about her with the almost painful tenderness he always felt, but seldom was at liberty to show. She reached up both hands and stroked his hair for a moment, laughing as one does to a little boy, and telling him she believed it was redder every time he came back.
"Have we got all the corn in, Mother?"
"No, Claude, we haven't. You know we're always behindhand. It's been fine, open weather for husking, too. But at least we've got rid of that miserable Jerry; so there's something to be thankful for. He had one of his fits of temper in town one day, when he was hitching up to come home, and Leonard Dawson saw him beat one of our horses with the neck-yoke. Leonard told your father, and spoke his mind, and your father discharged Jerry. If you or Ralph had told him, he most likely wouldn't have done anything about it. But I guess all fathers are the same." She chuckled confidingly, leaning on Claude's arm as they descended the stairs.
"I guess so. Did he hurt the horse much? Which one was it?"
"The little black, Pompey. I believe he is rather a mean horse. The men said one of the bones over the eye was broken, but he would probably come round all right."
"Pompey isn't mean; he's nervous. All the horses hated Jerry, and they had good reason to." Claude jerked his shoulders to shake off disgusting recollections of this mongrel man which flashed back into his mind. He had seen things happen. in the barn that he positively couldn't tell his father. Mr. Wheeler came into the kitchen and stopped on his way upstairs long enough to say, "Hello, Claude. You look pretty well."
"Yes, sir. I'm all right, thank you."
"Bayliss tells me you've been playing football a good deal."
"Not more than usual. We played half a dozen games; generally got licked. The State has a fine team, though."
"I ex-pect," Mr. Wheeler drawled as he strode upstairs.
Supper went as usual. Dan kept grinning and blinking at Claude, trying to discover whether he had already been informed of Jerry's fate. Ralph told him the neighbourhood gossip: Gus Yoeder, their German neighbour, was bringing suit against a farmer who had shot his dog. Leonard Dawson was going to marry Susie Grey. She was the girl on whose account Leonard had slapped Bayliss, Claude remembered.
After supper Ralph and Mr. Wheeler went off in the car to a Christmas entertainment at the country schoolhouse. Claude and his mother sat down for a quiet talk by the hard-coal burner in the living room upstairs. Claude liked this room, especially when his father was not there. The old carpet, the faded chairs, the secretary book-case, the spotty engraving with all the scenes from Pilgrim's Progress that hung over the sofa,--these things made him feel at home. Ralph was always proposing to re-furnish the room in Mission oak, but so far Claude and his mother had saved it.
Claude drew up his favourite chair and began to tell Mrs. Wheeler about the Erlich boys and their mother. She listened, but he could see that she was much more interested in hearing about the Chapins, and whether Edward's throat had improved, and where he had preached this fall. That was one of the disappointing things about coming home; he could never interest his mother in new things or people unless they in some way had to do with the church. He knew, too, she was always hoping to hear that he at last felt the need of coming closer to the church. She did not harass him about these things, but she had told him once or twice that nothing could happen in the world which would give her so much pleasure as to see him reconciled to Christ. He realized, as he talked to her about the Erlichs, that she was wondering whether they weren't very "worldly" people, and was apprehensive about their influence on him. The evening was rather a failure, and he went to bed early.
Claude had gone through a painful time of doubt and fear when he thought a great deal about religion. For several years, from fourteen to eighteen, he believed that he would be lost if he did not repent and undergo that mysterious change called conversion. But there was something stubborn in him that would not let him avail himself of the pardon offered. He felt condemned, but he did not want to renounce a world he as yet knew nothing of. He would like to go into life with all his vigour, with all his faculties free. He didn't want to be like the young men who said in prayer-meeting that they leaned on their Saviour. He hated their way of meekly accepting permitted pleasures.
In those days Claude had a sharp physical fear of death. A funeral, the sight of a neighbour lying rigid in his black coffin, overwhelmed him with terror. He used to lie awake in the dark, plotting against death, trying to devise some plan of escaping it, angrily wishing he had never been born. Was there no way out of the world but this? When he thought of the millions of lonely creatures rotting away under ground. life seemed nothing but a trap that caught people for one horrible end. There had never been a man so strong or so good that he had escaped. And yet he sometimes felt sure that he, Claude Wheeler, would escape; that he would actually invent some clever shift to save himself from dissolution. When he found it, he would tell nobody; he would be crafty and secret. Putrefaction, decay . . . . He could not give his pleasant, warm body over to that filthiness! "What did it mean, that verse in the Bible, "He shall not suffer His holy one to see corruption"?
If anything could cure an intelligent boy of morbid religious fears, it was a denominational school like that to which Claude had been sent. Now he dismissed all Christian theology as something too full of evasions and sophistries to be reasoned about. The men who made it, he felt sure, were like the men who taught it. The noblest could be damned, according to their theory, while almost any mean-spirited parasite could be saved by faith. "Faith," as he saw it exemplified in the faculty of the Temple school, was a substitute for most of the manly qualities he admired. Young men went into the ministry because they were timid or lazy and wanted society to take care of them; because they wanted to be pampered by kind, trusting women like his mother.
Though he wanted little to do with theology and theologians, Claude would have said that he was a Christian. He believed in God, and in the spirit of the four Gospels, and in the Sermon on the Mount. He used to halt and stumble at "Blessed are the meek," until one day he happened to think that this verse was meant exactly for people like Mahailey; and surely she was blessed!