Ernest Havel was cultivating his bright, glistening young cornfield one summer morning, whistling to himself an old German song which was somehow connected with a picture that rose in his memory. It was a picture of the earliest ploughing he could remember.
He saw a half-circle of green hills, with snow still lingering in the clefts of the higher ridges; behind the hills rose a wall of sharp mountains, covered with dark pine forests. In the meadows at the foot of that sweep of hills there was a winding creek, with polled willows in their first yellow-green, and brown fields. He himself was a little boy, playing by the creek and watching his father and mother plough with two great oxen, that had rope traces fastened to their heads and their long horns. His mother walked barefoot beside the oxen and led them; his father walked behind, guiding the plough. His father always looked down. His mother's face was almost as brown and furrowed as the fields, and her eyes were pale blue, like the skies of early spring. The two would go up and down thus all morning without speaking, except to the oxen. Ernest was the last of a long family, and as he played by the creek he used to wonder why his parents looked so old.
Leonard Dawson drove his car up to the fence and shouted, waking Ernest from his revery. He told his team to stand, and ran out to the edge of the field.
"Hello, Ernest," Leonard called. "Have you heard Claude Wheeler got hurt day before yesterday?"
"You don't say so! It can't be anything bad, or they'd let me know."
"Oh, it's nothing very bad, I guess, but he got his face scratched up in the wire quite a little. It was the queerest thing I ever saw. He was out with the team of mules and a heavy plough, working the road in that deep cut between their place and mine. The gasoline motor-truck came along, making more noise than usual, maybe. But those mules know a motor truck, and what they did was pure cussedness. They begun to rear and plunge in that deep cut. I was working my corn over in the field and shouted to the gasoline man to stop, but he didn't hear me. Claude jumped for the critters' heads and got 'em by the bits, but by that time he was all tangled up in the lines. Those damned mules lifted him off his feet and started to run. Down the draw and up the bank and across the fields they went, with that big plough-blade jumping three or four feet in the air every clip. I was sure it would cut one of the mules open, or go clean through Claude. It would have got him, too, if he hadn't kept his hold on the bits. They carried him right along, swinging in the air, and finally ran him into the barb-wire fence and cut his face and neck up."
"My goodness! Did he get cut bad?"
"No, not very, but yesterday morning he was out cultivating corn, all stuck up with court plaster. I knew that was a fool thing to do; a wire cut's nasty if you get overheated out in the dust. But you can't tell a Wheeler anything. Now they say his face has swelled and is hurting him terrible, and he's gone to town to see the doctor. You'd better go over there tonight, and see if you can make him take care of himself."
Leonard drove on, and Ernest went back to his team. "It's queer about that boy," he was thinking. "He's big and strong, and he's got an education and all that fine land, but he don't seem to fit in right." Sometimes Ernest thought his friend was unlucky. When that idea occurred to him, he sighed and shook it off. For Ernest believed there was no help for that; it was something rationalism did not explain.
The next afternoon Enid Royce's coupe drove up to the Wheeler farmyard. Mrs. Wheeler saw Enid get out of her car and came down the hill to meet her, breathless and distressed. "Oh, Enid! You've heard of Claude's accident? He wouldn't take care of himself, and now he's got erysipelas. He's in such pain, poor boy!"
Enid took her arm, and they started up the hill toward the house. "Can I see Claude, Mrs. Wheeler? I want to give him these flowers."
Mrs. Wheeler hesitated. "I don't know if he will let you come in, dear. I had hard work persuading him to see Ernest for a few moments last night. He seems so low-spirited, and he's sensitive about the way he's bandaged up. I'll go to his room and ask him."
"No, just let me go up with you, please. If I walk in with you, he won't have time to fret about it. I won't stay if he doesn't wish it, but I want to see him."
Mrs. Wheeler was alarmed at this suggestion, but Enid ignored her uncertainty. They went up to the third floor together, and Enid herself tapped at the door.
"It's I, Claude. May I come in for a moment?"
A muffled, reluctant voice answered. "No. They say this is catching, Enid. And anyhow, I'd rather you didn't see me like this."
Without waiting she pushed open the door. The dark blinds were down, and the room was full of a strong, bitter odor. Claude lay flat in bed, his head and face so smothered in surgical cotton that only his eyes and the tip of his nose were visible. The brown paste with which his features were smeared oozed out at the edges of the gauze and made his dressings look untidy. Enid took in these details at a glance.
"Does the light hurt your eyes? Let me put up one of the blinds for a moment, because I want you to see these flowers. I've brought you my first sweet peas."
Claude blinked at the bunch of bright colours she held out before him. She put them up to his face and asked him if he could smell them through his medicines. In a moment he ceased to feel embarrassed. His mother brought a glass bowl, and Enid arranged the flowers on the little table beside him.
"Now, do you want me to darken the room again?"
"Not yet. Sit down for a minute and talk to me. I can't say much because my face is stiff."
"I should think it would be! I met Leonard Dawson on the road yesterday, and he told me how you worked in the field after you were cut. I would like to scold you hard, Claude."
"Do. It might make me feel better." He took her hand and kept her beside him a moment. "Are those the sweet peas you were planting that day when I came back from the West?"
"Yes. Haven't they done well to blossom so early?"
"Less than two months. That's strange," he sighed.
"Oh, that a handful of seeds can make anything so pretty in a few weeks, and it takes a man so long to do anything and then it's not much account."
"That's not the way to look at things," she said reprovingly.
Enid sat prim and straight on a chair at the foot of his bed. Her flowered organdie dress was very much like the bouquet she had brought, and her floppy straw hat had a big lilac bow. She began to tell Claude about her father's several attacks of erysipelas. He listened but absently. He would never have believed that Enid, with her severe notions of decorum, would come into his room and sit with him like this. He noticed that his mother was quite as much astonished as he. She hovered about the visitor for a few moments, and then, seeing that Enid was quite at her ease, went downstairs to her work. Claude wished that Enid would not talk at all, but would sit there and let him look at her. The sunshine she had let into the room, and her tranquil, fragrant presence, soothed him. Presently he realized that she was asking him something.
"What is it, Enid? The medicine they give me makes me stupid. I don't catch things."
"I was asking whether you play chess."
"Father says I play passably well. When you are better you must let me bring up my ivory chessmen that Carrie sent me from China. They are beautifully carved. And now it's time for me to go."
She rose and patted his hand, telling him he must not be foolish about seeing people. "I didn't know you were so vain. Bandages are as becoming to you as they are to anybody. Shall I pull the dark blind again for you?"
"Yes, please. There won't be anything to look at now."
"Why, Claude, you are getting to be quite a ladies' man!"
Something in the way Enid said this made him wince a little. He felt his burning face grow a shade warmer. Even after she went downstairs he kept wishing she had not said that.
His mother came to give him his medicine. She stood beside him while he swallowed it. "Enid Royce is a real sensible girl--" she said as she took the glass. Her upward inflection expressed not conviction but bewilderment.
Enid came every afternoon, and Claude looked forward to her visits restlessly; they were the only pleasant things that happened to him, and made him forget the humiliation of his poisoned and disfigured face. He was disgusting to himself; when he touched the welts on his forehead and under his hair, he felt unclean and abject. At night, when his fever ran high, and the pain began to tighten in his head and neck, it wrought him to a distressing pitch of excitement. He fought with it as one bulldog fights with another. His mind prowled about among dark legends of torture,--everything he had ever read about the Inquisition, the rack and the wheel.
When Enid entered his room, cool and fresh in her pretty summer clothes, his mind leaped to meet her. He could not talk much, but he lay looking at her and breathing in a sweet contentment. After awhile he was well enough to sit up half-dressed in a steamer chair and play chess with her.
One afternoon they were by the west window in the sitting-room with the chess board between them, and Claude had to admit that he was beaten again.
"It must be dull for you, playing with me," he murmured, brushing the beads of sweat from his forehead. His face was clean now, so white that even his freckles had disappeared, and his hands were the soft, languid hands of a sick man.
"You will play better when you are stronger and can fix your mind on it," Enid assured him. She was puzzled because Claude, who had a good head for some things, had none at all for chess, and it was clear that he would never play well.
"Yes," he sighed, dropping back into his chair, "my wits do wander. Look at my wheatfield, over there on the skyline. Isn't it lovely? And now I won't be able to harvest it. Sometimes I wonder whether I'll ever finish anything I begin."
Enid put the chessmen back into their box. "Now that you are better, you must stop feeling blue. Father says that with your trouble people are always depressed."
Claude shook his head slowly, as it lay against the back of the chair. "No, it's not that. It's having so much time to think that makes me blue. You see, Enid, I've never yet done anything that gave me any satisfaction. I must be good for something. When I lie still and think, I wonder whether my life has been happening to me or to somebody else. It doesn't seem to have much connection with me. I haven't made much of a start."
"But you are not twenty-two yet. You have plenty of time to start. Is that what you are thinking about all the time!" She shook her finger at him.
"I think about two things all the time. That is one of them." Mrs. Wheeler came in with Claude's four o'clock milk; it was his first day downstairs.
When they were children, playing by the mill-dam, Claude had seen the future as a luminous vagueness in which he and Enid would always do things together. Then there came a time when he wanted to do everything with Ernest, when girls were disturbing and a bother, and he pushed all that into the distance, knowing that some day he must reckon with it again.
Now he told himself he had always known Enid would come back; and she had come on that afternoon when she entered his drug-smelling room and let in the sunlight. She would have done that for nobody but him. She was not a girl who would depart lightly from conventions that she recognized as authoritative. He remembered her as she used to march up to the platform for Children's Day exercises with the other little girls of the infant class; in her stiff white dress, never a curl awry or a wrinkle in her stocking, keeping her little comrades in order by the acquiescent gravity of her face, which seemed to say, "How pleasant it is to do thus and to do Right!"
Old Mr. Smith was the minister in those days,--a good man who had been much tossed about by a stormy and temperamental wife--and his eyes used to rest yearningly upon little Enid Royce, seeing in her the promise of "virtuous and comely Christian womanhood," to use one of his own phrases. Claude, in the boys' class across the aisle, used to tease her and try to distract her, but he respected her seriousness.
When they played together she was fair-minded, didn't whine if she got hurt, and never claimed a girl's exemption from anything unpleasant. She was calm, even on the day when she fell into the mill-dam and he fished her out; as soon as she stopped choking and coughing up muddy water, she wiped her face with her little drenched petticoats, and sat shivering and saying over and over, "Oh, Claude, Claude!" Incidents like that one now seemed to him significant and fateful.
When Claude's strength began to return to him, it came overwhelmingly. His blood seemed to grow strong while his body was still weak, so that the in-rush of vitality shook him. The desire to live again sang in his veins while his frame was unsteady. Waves of youth swept over him and left him exhausted. When Enid was with him these feelings were never so strong; her actual presence restored his equilibrium--almost. This fact did not perplex him; he fondly attributed it to something beautiful in the girl's nature,--a quality so lovely and subtle that there is no name for it.
During the first days of his recovery he did nothing but enjoy the creeping stir of life. Respiration was a soft physical pleasure. In the nights, so long he could not sleep them through, it was delightful to lie upon a cloud that floated lazily down the sky. In the depths of this lassitude the thought of Enid would start up like a sweet, burning pain, and he would drift out into the darkness upon sensations he could neither prevent nor control. So long as he could plough, pitch hay, or break his back in the wheatfield, he had been master; but now he was overtaken by himself. Enid was meant for him and she had come for him; he would never let her go. She should never know how much he longed for her. She would be slow to feel even a little of what he was feeling; he knew that. It would take a long while. But he would be infinitely patient, infinitely tender of her. It should be he who suffered, not she. Even in his dreams he never wakened her, but loved her while she was still and unconscious like a statue. He would shed love upon her until she warmed and changed without knowing why.
Sometimes when Enid sat unsuspecting beside him, a quick blush swept across his face and he felt guilty toward her, meek and humble, as if he must beg her forgiveness for something. Often he was glad when she went away and left him alone to think about her. Her presence brought him sanity, and for that he ought to be grateful. When he was with her, he thought how she was to be the one who would put him right with the world and make him fit into the life about him. He had troubled his mother and disappointed his father, His marriage would be the first natural, dutiful, expected thing he had ever done. It would be the beginning of usefulness and content; as his mother's oft-repeated Psalm said, it would restore his soul. Enid's willingness to listen to him he could scarcely doubt. Her devotion to him during his illness was probably regarded by her friends as equivalent to an engagement.