Between haying and harvest that summer Ralph and Mr. Wheeler drove to Denver in the big car, leaving Claude and Dan to cultivate the corn. When they returned Mr. Wheeler announced that he had a secret. After several days of reticence, during which he shut himself up in the sitting-room writing letters, and passed mysterious words and winks with Ralph at table, he disclosed a project which swept away all Claude's plans and purposes.
On the return trip from Denver Mr. Wheeler had made a detour down into Yucca county, Colorado, to visit an old friend who was in difficulties. Tom Wested was a Maine man, from Wheeler's own neighbourhood. Several years ago he had lost his wife. Now his health had broken down, and the Denver doctors said he must retire from business and get into a low altitude. He wanted to go back to Maine and live among his own people, but was too much discouraged and frightened about his condition even to undertake the sale of his ranch and live stock. Mr. Wheeler had been able to help his friend, and at the same time did a good stroke of business for himself. He owned a farm in Maine, his share of his father's estate, which for years he had rented for little more than the up-keep. By making over this property, and assuming certain mortgages, he got Wested's fine, well-watered ranch in exchange. He paid him a good price for his cattle, and promised to take the sick man back to Maine and see him comfortably settled there. All this Mr. Wheeler explained to his family when he called them up to the living room one hot, breathless night after supper. Mrs. Wheeler, who seldom concerned herself with her husband's business affairs, asked absently why they bought more land, when they already had so much they could not farm half of it.
"Just like a woman, Evangeline, just like a woman!" Mr. Wheeler replied indulgently. He was sitting in the full glare of the acetylene lamp, his neckband open, his collar and tie on the table beside him, fanning himself with a palm-leaf fan. "You might as well ask me why I want to make more money, when I haven't spent all I've got."
He intended, he said, to put Ralph on the Colorado ranch and "give the boy some responsibility." Ralph would have the help of Wested's foreman, an old hand in the cattle business, who had agreed to stay on under the new management. Mr. Wheeler assured his wife that he wasn't taking advantage of poor Wested; the timber on the Maine place was really worth a good deal of money; but because his father had always been so proud of his great pine woods, he had never, he said, just felt like turning a sawmill loose in them. Now he was trading a pleasant old farm that didn't bring in anything for a grama-grass ranch which ought to turn over a profit of ten or twelve thousand dollars in good cattle years, and wouldn't lose much in bad ones. He expected to spend about half his time out there with Ralph. "When I'm away," he remarked genially, "you and Mahailey won't have so much to do. You can devote yourselves to embroidery, so to speak."
"If Ralph is to live in Colorado, and you are to be away from home half of the time, I don't see what is to become of this place," murmured Mrs. Wheeler, still in the dark.
"Not necessary for you to see, Evangeline," her husband replied, stretching his big frame until the rocking chair creaked under him. "It will be Claude's business to look after that."
"Claude?" Mrs. Wheeler brushed a lock of hair back from her damp forehead in vague alarm.
"Of course." He looked with twinkling eyes at his son's straight, silent figure in the corner. "You've had about enough theology, I presume? No ambition to be a preacher? This winter I mean to turn the farm over to you and give you a chance to straighten things out. You've been dissatisfied with the way the place is run for some time, haven't you? Go ahead and put new blood into it. New ideas, if you want to; I've no objection. They're expensive, but let it go. You can fire Dan if you want, and get what help you need."
Claude felt as if a trap had been sprung on him. He shaded his eyes with his hand. "I don't think I'm competent to run the place right," he said unsteadily.
"Well, you don't think I am either, Claude, so we're up against it. It's always been my notion that the land was made for man, just as it's old Dawson's that man was created to work the land. I don't mind your siding with the Dawsons in this difference of opinion, if you can get their results."
Mrs. Wheeler rose and slipped quickly from the room, feeling her way down the dark staircase to the kitchen. It was dusky and quiet there. Mahailey sat in a corner, hemming dish-towels by the light of a smoky old brass lamp which was her own cherished luminary. Mrs. Wheeler walked up and down the long room in soft, silent agitation, both hands pressed tightly to her breast, where there was a physical ache of sympathy for Claude.
She remembered kind Tom Wested. He had stayed over night with them several times, and had come to them for consolation after his wife died. It seemed to her that his decline in health and loss of courage, Mr. Wheeler's fortuitous trip to Denver, the old pine-wood farm in Maine; were all things that fitted together and made a net to envelop her unfortunate son. She knew that he had been waiting impatiently for the autumn, and that for the first time he looked forward eagerly to going back to school. He was homesick for his friends, the Erlichs, and his mind was all the time upon the history course he meant to take.
Yet all this would weigh nothing in the family councils probably he would not even speak of it--and he had not one substantial objection to offer to his father's wishes. His disappointment would be bitter. "Why, it will almost break his heart," she murmured aloud. Mahailey was a little deaf and heard nothing. She sat holding her work up to the light, driving her needle with a big brass thimble, nodding with sleepiness between stitches. Though Mrs. Wheeler was scarcely conscious of it, the old woman's presence was a comfort to her, as she walked up and down with her drifting, uncertain step.
She had left the sitting-room because she was afraid Claude might get angry and say something hard to his father, and because she couldn't bear to see him hectored. Claude had always found life hard to live; he suffered so much over little things,-and she suffered with him. For herself, she never felt disappointments. Her husband's careless decisions did not disconcert her. If he declared that he would not plant a garden at all this year, she made no protest. It was Mahailey who grumbled. If he felt like eating roast beef and went out and killed a steer, she did the best she could to take care of the meat, and if some of it spoiled she tried not to worry. When she was not lost in religious meditation, she was likely to be thinking about some one of the old books she read over and over. Her personal life was so far removed from the scene of her daily activities that rash and violent men could not break in upon it. But where Claude was concerned, she lived on another plane, dropped into the lower air, tainted with human breath and pulsating with poor, blind, passionate human feelings.
It had always been so. And now, as she grew older, and her flesh had almost ceased to be concerned with pain or pleasure, like the wasted wax images in old churches, it still vibrated with his feelings and became quick again for him. His chagrins shrivelled her. When he was hurt and suffered silently, something ached in her. On the other hand, when he was happy, a wave of physical contentment went through her. If she wakened in the night and happened to think that he had been happy lately, she would lie softly and gratefully in her warm place.
"Rest, rest, perturbed spirit," she sometimes whispered to him in her mind, when she wakened thus and thought of him. There was a singular light in his eyes when he smiled at her on one of his good days, as if to tell her that all was well in his inner kingdom. She had seen that same look again and again, and she could always remember it in the dark,--a quick blue flash, tender and a little wild, as if he had seen a vision or glimpsed bright uncertainties.