Sunday was Claude's last day at home, and he took a long walk with Ernest and Ralph. Ernest would have preferred to lose Ralph, but when the boy was out of the harvest field he stuck to his brother like a burr. There was something about Claude's new clothes and new manner that fascinated him, and he went through one of those sudden changes of feeling that often occur in families. Although they had been better friends ever since Claude's wedding, until now Ralph had always felt a little ashamed of him. Why, he used to ask himself, wouldn't Claude "spruce up and be somebody"? Now, he was struck by the fact that he was somebody.
On Monday morning Mrs. Wheeler wakened early, with a faintness in her chest. This was the day on which she must acquit herself well. Breakfast would be Claude's last meal at home. At eleven o'clock his father and Ralph would take him to Frankfort to catch the train. She was longer than usual in dressing. When she got downstairs Claude and Mahailey were already talking. He was shaving in the washroom, and Mahailey stood watching him, a side of bacon in her hand.
"You tell 'em over there I'm awful sorry about them old women, with their dishes an' their stove all broke up."
"All right. I will." Claude scraped away at his chin.
She lingered. "Maybe you can help 'em mend their things, like you do mine fur me," she suggested hopefully.
"Maybe," he murmured absently. Mrs. Wheeler opened the stair door, and Mahailey dodged back to the stove.
After breakfast Dan went out to the fields with the harvesters. Ralph and Claude and Mr. Wheeler were busy with the car all morning.
Mrs. Wheeler kept throwing her apron over her head and going down the hill to see what they were doing. Whether there was really something the matter with the engine, or whether the men merely made it a pretext for being together and keeping away from the house, she did not know. She felt that her presence was not much desired, and at last she went upstairs and resignedly watched them from the sitting-room window. Presently she heard Ralph run up to the third storey. When he came down with Claude's bags in his hands, he stuck his head in at the door and shouted cheerfully to his mother:
"No hurry. I'm just taking them down so they'll be ready."
Mrs. Wheeler ran after him, calling faintly, "Wait, Ralph! Are you sure he's got everything in? I didn't hear him packing."
"Everything ready. He says he won't have to go upstairs again. He'll be along pretty soon. There's lots of time." Ralph shot down through the basement.
Mrs. Wheeler sat down in her reading chair. They wanted to keep her away, and it was a little selfish of them. Why couldn't they spend these last hours quietly in the house, instead of dashing in and out to frighten her? Now she could hear the hot water running in the kitchen; probably Mr. Wheeler had come in to wash his hands. She felt really too weak to get up and go to the west window to see if he were still down at the garage. Waiting was now a matter of seconds, and her breath came short enough as it was.
She recognized a heavy, hob-nailed boot on the stairs, mounting quickly. When Claude entered, carrying his hat in his hand, she saw by his walk, his shoulders, and the way he held his head, that the moment had come, and that he meant to make it short. She rose, reaching toward him as he came up to her and caught her in his arms. She was smiling her little, curious intimate smile, with half-closed eyes.
"Well, is it good-bye?" she murmured. She passed her hands over his shoulders, down his strong back and the close-fitting sides of his coat, as if she were taking the mould and measure of his mortal frame. Her chin came just to his breast pocket, and she rubbed it against the heavy cloth. Claude stood looking down at her without speaking a word. Suddenly his arms tightened and he almost crushed her.
"Mother!" he whispered as he kissed her. He ran downstairs and out of the house without looking back.
She struggled up from the chair where she had sunk and crept to the window; he was vaulting down the hill as fast as he could go. He jumped into the car beside his father. Ralph was already at the wheel, and Claude had scarcely touched the cushions when they were off. They ran down the creek and over the bridge, then up the long hill on the other side. As they neared the crest of the hill, Claude stood up in the car and looked back at the house, waving his cone-shaped hat. She leaned out and strained her sight, but her tears blurred everything. The brown, upright figure seemed to float out of the car and across the fields, and before he was actually gone, she lost him. She fell back against the windowsill, clutching her temples with both hands, and broke into choking, passionate speech. "Old eyes," she cried, "why do you betray me? Why do you cheat me of my last sight of my splendid son!"