The weather, after the big storm, behaved capriciously. There was a partial thaw which threatened to flood everything,--then a hard freeze. The whole country glittered with an icy crust, and people went about on a platform of frozen snow, quite above the level of ordinary life. Claude got out Mr. Wheeler's old double sleigh from the mass of heterogeneous objects that had for years lain on top of it, and brought the rusty sleighbells up to the house for Mahailey to scour with brick dust. Now that they had automobiles, most of the farmers had let their old sleighs go to pieces. But the Wheelers always kept everything.
Claude told his mother he meant to take Enid Royce for a sleigh-ride. Enid was the daughter of Jason Royce, the grain merchant, one of the early settlers, who for many years had run the only grist mill in Frankfort county. She and Claude were old playmates; he made a formal call at the millhouse, as it was called, every summer during his vacation, and often dropped in to see Mr. Royce at his town office.
Immediately after supper, Claude put the two wiry little blacks, Pompey and Satan, to the sleigh. The moon had been up since long before the sun went down, had been hanging pale in the sky most of the afternoon, and now it flooded the snow-terraced land with silver. It was one of those sparkling winter nights when a boy feels that though the world is very big, he himself is bigger; that under the whole crystalline blue sky there is no one quite so warm and sentient as himself, and that all this magnificence is for him. The sleighbells rang out with a kind of musical lightheartedness, as if they were glad to sing again, after the many winters they had hung rusty and dustchoked in the barn.
The mill road, that led off the highway and down to the river, had pleasant associations for Claude. When he was a youngster, every time his father went to mill, he begged to go along. He liked the mill and the miller and the miller's little girl. He had never liked the miller's house, however, and he was afraid of Enid's mother. Even now, as he tied his horses to the long hitch-bar down by the engine room, he resolved that he would not be persuaded to enter that formal parlour, full of new-looking, expensive furniture, where his energy always deserted him and he could never think of anything to talk about. If he moved, his shoes squeaked in the silence, and Mrs. Royce sat and blinked her sharp little eyes at him, and the longer he stayed, the harder it was to go.
Enid herself came to the door.
"Why, it's Claude!" she exclaimed. "Won't you come in?"
"No, I want you to go riding. I've got the old sleigh out. Come on, it's a fine night!"
"I thought I heard bells. Won't you come in and see Mother while I get my things on?"
Claude said he must stay with his horses, and ran back to the hitch-bar. Enid didn't keep him waiting long; she wasn't that kind. She came swiftly down the path and through the front gate in the Maine seal motor-coat she wore when she drove her coupe in cold weather.
"Now, which way?" Claude asked as the horses sprang forward and the bells began to jingle.
"Almost any way. What a beautiful night! And I love your bells, Claude. I haven't heard sleighbells since you used to bring me and Gladys home from school in stormy weather. Why don't we stop for her tonight? She has furs now, you know!" Here Enid laughed. "All the old ladies are so terribly puzzled about them; they can't find out whether your brother really gave them to her for Christmas or not. If they were sure she bought them for herself, I believe they'd hold a public meeting."
Claude cracked his whip over his eager little blacks. "Doesn't it make you tired, the way they are always nagging at Gladys?"
"It would, if she minded. But she's just as serene! They must have something to fuss about, and of course poor Mrs. Farmer's back taxes are piling up. I certainly suspect Bayliss of the furs."
Claude did not feel as eager to stop for Gladys as he had been a few moments before. They were approaching the town now, and lighted windows shone softly across the blue whiteness of the snow. Even in progressive Frankfort, the street lights were turned off on a night so glorious as this. Mrs. Farmer and her daughter had a little white cottage down in the south part of the town, where only people of modest means lived. "We must stop to see Gladys' mother, if only for a minute," Enid said as they drew up before the fence. "She is so fond of company." Claude tied his team to a tree, and they went up to the narrow, sloping porch, hung with vines that were full of frozen snow.
Mrs. Farmer met them; a large, rosy woman of fifty, with a pleasant Kentucky voice. She took Enid's arm affectionately, and Claude followed them into the long, low sitting-room, which had an uneven floor and a lamp at either end, and was scantily furnished in rickety mahogany. There, close beside the hard-coal burner, sat Bayliss Wheeler. He did not rise when they entered, but said, "Hello, folks," in a rather sheepish voice. On a little table, beside Mrs. Farmer's workbasket, was the box of candy he had lately taken out of his overcoat pocket, still tied up with its gold cord. A tall lamp stood beside the piano, where Gladys had evidently been practising. Claude wondered whether Bayliss actually pretended to an interest in music! At this moment Gladys was in the kitchen, Mrs. Farmer explained, looking for her mother's glasses, mislaid when she was copying a recipe for a cheese souffle.
"Are you still getting new recipes, Mrs. Farmer?" Enid asked her. "I thought you could make every dish in the world already."
"Oh, not quite!" Mrs. Farmer laughed modestly and showed that she liked compliments. "Do sit down, Claude," she besought of the stiff image by the door. "Daughter will be here directly."
At that moment Gladys Farmer appeared.
"Why, I didn't know you had company, Mother," she said, coming in to greet them.
This meant, Claude supposed, that Bayliss was not company. He scarcely glanced at Gladys as he took the hand she held out to him.
One of Gladys' grandfathers had come from Antwerp, and she had the settled composure, the full red lips, brown eyes, and dimpled white hands which occur so often in Flemish portraits of young women. Some people thought her a trifle heavy, too mature and positive to be called pretty, even though they admired her rich, tulip-like complexion. Gladys never seemed aware that her looks and her poverty and her extravagance were the subject of perpetual argument, but went to and from school every day with the air of one whose position is assured. Her musicianship gave her a kind of authority in Frankfort.
Enid explained the purpose of their call. "Claude has got out his old sleigh, and we've come to take you for a ride. Perhaps Bayliss will go, too?"
Bayliss said he guessed he would, though Claude knew there was nothing he hated so much as being out in the cold. Gladys ran upstairs to put on a warm dress, and Enid accompanied her, leaving Mrs. Farmer to make agreeable conversation between her two incompatible guests.
"Bayliss was just telling us how you lost your hogs in the storm, Claude. What a pity!" she said sympathetically.
Yes, Claude thought, Bayliss wouldn't be at all reticent about that incident!
"I suppose there was really no way to save them," Mrs. Farmer went on in her polite way; her voice was low and round, like her daughter's, different from the high, tight Western voice. "So I hope you don't let yourself worry about it."
"No, I don't worry about anything as dead as those hogs were. What's the use?" Claude asked boldly.
"That's right," murmured Mrs. Farmer, rocking a little in her chair. "Such things will happen sometimes, and we ought not to take them too hard. It isn't as if a person had been hurt, is it?"
Claude shook himself and tried to respond to her cordiality, and to the shabby comfort of her long parlour, so evidently doing its best to be attractive to her friends. There weren't four steady legs on any of the stuffed chairs or little folding tables she had brought up from the South, and the heavy gold moulding was half broken away from the oil portrait of her father, the judge. But she carried her poverty lightly, as Southern people did after the Civil War, and she didn't fret half so much about her back taxes as her neighbours did. Claude tried to talk agreeably to her, but he was distracted by the sound of stifled laughter upstairs. Probably Gladys and Enid were joking about Bayliss' being there. How shameless girls were, anyhow!
People came to their front windows to look out as the sleigh dashed jingling up and down the village streets. When they left town, Bayliss suggested that they drive out past the Trevor place. The girls began to talk about the two young New Englanders, Trevor and Brewster, who had lived there when Frankfort was still a tough little frontier settlement. Every one was talking about them now, for a few days ago word had come that one of the partners, Amos Brewster, had dropped dead in his law office in Hartford. It was thirty years since he and his friend, Bruce Trevor, had tried to be great cattle men in Frankfort county, and had built the house on the round hill east of the town, where they wasted a great deal of money very joyously. Claude's father always declared that the amount they squandered in carousing was negligible compared to their losses in commendable industrial endeavour. The country, Mr. Wheeler said, had never been the same since those boys left it. He delighted to tell about the time when Trevor and Brewster went into sheep. They imported a breeding ram from Scotland at a great expense, and when he arrived were so impatient to get the good of him that they turned him in with the ewes as soon as he was out of his crate. Consequently all the lambs were born at the wrong season; came at the beginning of March, in a blinding blizzard, and the mothers died from exposure. The gallant Trevor took horse and spurred all over the county, from one little settlement to another, buying up nursing bottles and nipples to feed the orphan lambs.
The rich bottom land about the Trevor place had been rented out to a truck gardener for years now; the comfortable house with its billiard-room annex-- a wonder for that part of the country in its day--remained closed, its windows boarded up. It sat on the top of a round knoll, a fine cottonwood grove behind it. Tonight, as Claude drove toward it, the hill with its tall straight trees looked like a big fur cap put down on the snow.
"Why hasn't some one bought that house long ago and fixed it up?" Enid remarked. "There is no building site around here to compare with it. It looks like the place where the leading citizen of the town ought to live."
"I'm glad you like it, Enid," said Bayliss in a guarded voice. "I've always had a sneaking fancy for the place myself. Those fellows back there never wanted to sell it. But now the estate's got to be settled up. I bought it yesterday. The deed is on its way to Hartford for signature."
Enid turned round in her seat. "Why Bayliss, are you in earnest? Think of just buying the Trevor place off-hand, as if it were any ordinary piece of real estate! Will you make over the house, and live there some day?"
"I don't know about living there. It's too far to walk to my business, and the road across this bottom gets pretty muddy for a car in the spring."
"But it's not far, less than a mile. If I once owned that spot, I'd surely never let anybody else live there. Even Carrie remembers it. She often asks in her letters whether any one has bought the Trevor place yet."
Carrie Royce, Enid's older sister, was a missionary in China.
"Well," Bayliss admitted, "I didn't buy it for an investment, exactly. I paid all it was worth."
Enid turned to Gladys, who was apparently not listening. "You'd be the one who could plan a mansion for Trevor Hill, Gladys. You always have such original ideas about houses."
"Yes, people who have no houses of their own often seem to have ideas about building," said Gladys quietly. "But I like the Trevor place as it is. I hate to think that one of them is dead. People say they did have such good times up there."
Bayliss grunted. "Call it good times if you like. The kids were still grubbing whiskey bottles out of the cellar when I first came to town. Of course, if I decide to live there, I'll pull down that old trap and put up something modern." He often took this gruff tone with Gladys in public.
Enid tried to draw the driver into the conversation. "There seems to be a difference of opinion here, Claude."
"Oh," said Gladys carelessly, "it's Bayliss' property, or soon will be. He will build what he likes. I've always known somebody would get that place away from me, so I'm prepared."
"Get it away from you?" muttered Bayliss, amazed.
"Yes. As long as no one bought it and spoiled it, it was mine as much as it was anybody's."
"Claude," said Enid banteringly, "now both your brothers have houses. Where are you going to have yours?"
"I don't know that I'll ever have one. I think I'll run about the world a little before I draw my plans," he replied sarcastically.
"Take me with you, Claude!" said Gladys in a tone of sudden weariness. From that spiritless murmur Enid suspected that Bayliss had captured Gladys' hand under the buffalo robe.
Grimness had settled down over the sleighing party. Even Enid, who was not highly sensitive to unuttered feelings, saw that there was an uncomfortable constraint. A sharp wind had come up. Bayliss twice suggested turning back, but his brother answered, "Pretty soon," and drove on. He meant that Bayliss should have enough of it. Not until Enid whispered reproachfully, "I really think you ought to turn; we're all getting cold," did he realize that he had made his sleighing party into a punishment! There was certainly nothing to punish Enid for; she had done her best, and had tried to make his own bad manners less conspicuous. He muttered a blundering apology to her when he lifted her from the sleigh at the mill house. On his long drive home he had bitter thoughts for company.
He was so angry with Gladys that he hadn't been able to bid her good-night. Everything she said on the ride had nettled him. If she meant to marry Bayliss, then she ought to throw off this affectation of freedom and independence. If she did not mean to, why did she accept favours from him and let him get into the habit of walking into her house and putting his box of candy on the table, as all Frankfort fellows did when they were courting? Certainly she couldn't make herself believe that she liked his society!
When they were classmates at the Frankfort High School, Gladys was Claude's aesthetic proxy. It wasn't the proper thing for a boy to be too clean, or too careful about his dress and manners. But if he selected a girl who was irreproachable in these respects, got his Latin and did his laboratory work with her, then all her personal attractions redounded to his credit. Gladys had seemed to appreciate the honour Claude did her, and it was not all on her own account that she wore such beautifully ironed muslin dresses when they went on botanical expeditions.
Driving home after that miserable sleigh-ride, Claude told himself that in so far as Gladys was concerned he could make up his mind to the fact that he had been "stung" all along. He had believed in her fine feelings; believed implicitly. Now he knew she had none so fine that she couldn't pocket them when there was enough to be gained by it. Even while he said these things over and over, his old conception of Gladys, down at the bottom of his mind, remained persistently unchanged. But that only made his state of feeling the more painful. He was deeply hurt,--and for some reason, youth, when it is hurt, likes to feel itself betrayed.