The next morning Claude stepped off the train at Frankfort and had his breakfast at the station before the town was awake. His family were not expecting him, so he thought he would walk home and stop at the mill to see Enid Royce. After all, old friends were best.
He left town by the low road that wound along the creek. The willows were all out in new yellow leaves, and the sticky cotton-wood buds were on the point of bursting. Birds were calling everywhere, and now and then, through the studded willow wands, flashed the dazzling wing of a cardinal.
All over the dusty, tan-coloured wheatfields there was a tender mist of green,--millions of little fingers reaching up and waving lightly in the sun. To the north and south Claude could see the corn-planters, moving in straight lines over the brown acres where the earth had been harrowed so fine that it blew off in clouds of dust to the roadside. When a gust of wind rose, gay little twisters came across the open fields, corkscrews of powdered earth that whirled through the air and suddenly fell again. It seemed as if there were a lark on every fence post, singing for everything that was dumb; for the great ploughed lands, and the heavy horses in the rows, and the men guiding the horses.
Along the roadsides, from under the dead weeds and wisps of dried bluestem, the dandelions thrust up their clean, bright faces. If Claude happened to step on one, the acrid smell made him think of Mahailey, who had probably been out this very morning, gouging the sod with her broken butcher knife and stuffing dandelion greens into her apron. She always went for greens with an air of secrecy, very early, and sneaked along the roadsides stooping close to the ground, as if she might be detected and driven away, or as if the dandelions were wild things and had to be caught sleeping.
Claude was thinking, as he walked, of how he used to like to come to mill with his father. The whole process of milling was mysterious to him then; and the mill house and the miller's wife were mysterious; even Enid was, a little--until he got her down in the bright sun among the cat-tails. They used to play in the bins of clean wheat, watch the flour coming out of the hopper and get themselves covered with white dust.
Best of all he liked going in where the water-wheel hung dripping in its dark cave, and quivering streaks of sunlight came in through the cracks to play on the green slime and the spotted jewel-weed growing in the shale. The mill was a place of sharp contrasts; bright sun and deep shade, roaring sound and heavy, dripping silence. He remembered how astonished he was one day, when he found Mr. Royce in gloves and goggles, cleaning the millstones, and discovered what harmless looking things they were. The miller picked away at them with a sharp hammer until the sparks flew, and Claude still had on his hand a blue spot where a chip of flint went under the skin when he got too near.
Jason Royce must have kept his mill going out of sentiment, for there was not much money in it now. But milling had been his first business, and he had not found many things in life to be sentimental about. Sometimes one still came upon him in dusty miller's clothes, giving his man a day off. He had long ago ceased to depend on the risings and fallings of Lovely Creek for his power, and had put in a gasoline engine. The old dam now lay "like a holler tooth," as one of his men said, grown up with weeds and willow-brush.
Mr. Royce's family affairs had never gone as well as his business. He had not been blessed with a son, and out of five daughters he had succeeded in bringing up only two. People thought the mill house damp and unwholesome. Until he built a tenant's cottage and got a married man to take charge of the mill, Mr. Royce was never able to keep his millers long. They complained of the gloom of the house, and said they could not get enough to eat. Mrs. Royce went every summer to a vegetarian sanatorium in Michigan, where she learned to live on nuts and toasted cereals. She gave her family nourishment, to be sure, but there was never during the day a meal that a man could look forward to with pleasure, or sit down to with satisfaction. Mr. Royce usually dined at the hotel in town. Nevertheless, his wife was distinguished for certain brilliant culinary accomplishments. Her bread was faultless. When a church supper was toward, she was always called upon for her wonderful mayonnaise dressing, or her angel-food cake,--sure to be the lightest and spongiest in any assemblage of cakes.
A deep preoccupation about her health made Mrs. Royce like a woman who has a hidden grief, or is preyed upon by a consuming regret. It wrapped her in a kind of insensibility. She lived differently from other people, and that fact made her distrustful and reserved. Only when she was at the sanatorium, under the care of her idolized doctors, did she feel that she was understood and surrounded by sympathy.
Her distrust had communicated itself to her daughters and in countless little ways had coloured their feelings about life. They grew up under the shadow of being "different," and formed no close friendships. Gladys Farmer was the only Frankfort girl who had ever gone much to the mill house. Nobody was surprised when Caroline Royce, the older daughter, went out to China to be a missionary, or that her mother let her go without a protest. The Royce women were strange, anyhow, people said; with Carrie gone, they hoped Enid would grow up to be more like other folk. She dressed well, came to town often in her car, and was always ready to work for the church or the public library.
Besides, in Frankfort, Enid was thought very pretty,--in itself a humanizing attribute. She was slender, with a small, well-shaped head, a smooth, pale skin, and large, dark, opaque eyes with heavy lashes. The long line from the lobe of her ear to the tip of her chin gave her face a certain rigidity, but to the old ladies, who are the best critics in such matters, this meant firmness and dignity. She moved quickly and gracefully, just brushing things rather than touching them, so that there was a suggestion of flight about her slim figure, of gliding away from her surroundings. When the Sunday School gave tableaux vivants, Enid was chosen for Nydia, the blind girl of Pompeii, and for the martyr in "Christ or Diana." The pallor of her skin, the submissive inclination of her forehead, and her dark, unchanging eyes, made one think of something "early Christian."
On this May morning when Claude Wheeler came striding up the mill road, Enid was in the yard, standing by a trellis for vines built near the fence, out from under the heavy shade of the trees. She was raking the earth that had been spaded up the day before, and making furrows in which to drop seeds. From the turn of the road, by the knotty old willows, Claude saw her pink starched dress and little white sun-bonnet. He hurried forward.
"Hello, are you farming?" he called as he came up to the fence.
Enid, who was bending over at that moment, rose quickly, but without a start. "Why, Claude! I thought you were out West somewhere. This is a surprise!" She brushed the earth from her hands and gave him her limp white fingers. Her arms, bare below the elbow, were thin, and looked cold, as if she had put on a summer dress too early.
"I just got back this morning. I'm walking out home. What are you planting?"
"You always have the finest ones in the country. When I see a bunch of yours at church or anywhere, I always know them."
"Yes, I'm quite successful with my sweet peas," she admitted. "The ground is rich down here, and they get plenty of sun."
"It isn't only your sweet peas. Nobody else has such lilacs or rambler roses, and I expect you have the only wistaria vine in Frankfort county."
"Mother planted that a long while ago, when she first moved here. She is very partial to wistaria. I'm afraid we'll lose it, one of these hard winters."
"Oh, that would be a shame! Take good care of it. You must put in a lot of time looking after these things, anyway." He spoke admiringly.
Enid leaned against the fence and pushed back her little bonnet. "Perhaps I take more interest in flowers than I do in people. I often envy you, Claude; you have so many interests."
He coloured. "I? Good gracious, I don't have many! I'm an awfully discontented sort of fellow. I didn't care about going to school until I had to stop, and then I was sore because I couldn't go back. I guess I've been sulking about it all winter."
She looked at him with quiet astonishment. "I don't see why you should be discontented; you're so free."
"Well, aren't you free, too?"
"Not to do what I want to. The only thing I really want to do is to go out to China and help Carrie in her work. Mother thinks I'm not strong enough. But Carrie was never very strong here. She is better in China, and I think I might be."
Claude felt concern. He had not seen Enid since the sleighride, when she had been gayer than usual. Now she seemed sunk in lassitude. "You must get over such notions, Enid. You don't want to go wandering off alone like that. It makes people queer. Isn't there plenty of missionary work to be done right here?"
She sighed. "That's what everybody says. But we all of us have a chance, if we'll take it. Out there they haven't. It's terrible to think of all those millions that live and die in darkness."
Claude glanced up at the sombre mill house, hidden in cedars,--then off at the bright, dusty fields. He felt as if he were a little to blame for Enid's melancholy. He hadn't been very neighbourly this last year. "People can live in darkness here, too, unless they fight it. Look at me. I told you I've been moping all winter. We all feel friendly enough, but we go plodding on and never get together. You and I are old friends, and yet we hardly ever see each other. Mother says you've been promising for two years to run up and have a visit with her. Why don't you come? It would please her."
"Then I will. I've always been fond of your mother." She paused a moment, absently twisting the strings of her bonnet, then twitched it from her head with a quick movement and looked at him squarely in the bright light. "Claude, you haven't really become a free-thinker, have you?"
He laughed outright. "Why, what made you think I had?"
"Everybody knows Ernest Havel is, and people say you and he read that kind of books together."
"Has that got anything to do with our being friends?"
"Yes, it has. I couldn't feel the same confidence in you. I've worried about it a good deal."
"Well, you just cut it out. For one thing, I'm not worth it," be said quickly.
"Oh, yes, you are! If worrying would do any good--" she shook her head at him reproachfully.
Claude took hold of the fence pickets between them with both hands. "It will do good! Didn't I tell you there was missionary work to be done right here? Is that why you've been so stand-offish with me the last few years, because you thought I was an atheist?"
"I never, you know, liked Ernest Havel," she murmured.
When Claude left the mill and started homeward he felt that he had found something which would help him through the summer. How fortunate he had been to come upon Enid alone and talk to her without interruption,--without once seeing Mrs. Royce's face, always masked in powder, peering at him from behind a drawn blind. Mrs. Royce had always looked old, even long ago when she used to come into church with her little girls,--a tiny woman in tiny high-heeled shoes and a big hat with nodding plumes, her black dress covered with bugles and jet that glittered and rattled and made her seem hard on the outside, like an insect.
Yes, he must see to it that Enid went about and saw more of other people. She was too much with her mother, and with her own thoughts. Flowers and foreign missions--her garden and the great kingdom of China; there was something unusual and touching about her preoccupations. Something quite charming, too. Women ought to be religious; faith was the natural fragrance of their minds. The more incredible the things they believed, the more lovely was the act of belief. To him the story of "Paradise Lost" was as mythical as the "Odyssey"; yet when his mother read it aloud to him, it was not only beautiful but true. A woman who didn't have holy thoughts about mysterious things far away would be prosaic and commonplace, like a man.