It was Sunday afternoon and Claude had gone down to the mill house, as Enid and her mother had returned from Michigan the day before. Mrs. Wheeler, propped back in a rocking chair, was reading, and Mr. Wheeler, in his shirt sleeves, his Sunday collar unbuttoned, was sitting at his walnut secretary, amusing himself with columns of figures. Presently he rose and yawned, stretching his arms above his head.
"Claude thinks he wants to begin building right away, up on the quarter next the timber claim. I've been figuring on the lumber. Building materials are cheap just now, so I suppose I'd better let him go ahead."
Mrs. Wheeler looked up absently from the page. "Why, I suppose so."
Her husband sat down astride a chair, and leaning his arms on the back of it, looked at her. "What do you think of this match, anyway? I don't know as I've heard you say."
"Enid is a good, Christian girl. . ." Mrs. Wheeler began resolutely, but her sentence hung in the air like a question.
He moved impatiently. "Yes, I know. But what does a husky boy like Claude want to pick out a girl like that for? Why, Evangeline, she'll be the old woman over again!"
Apparently these misgivings were not new to Mrs. Wheeler,* for she put out her hand to stop him and whispered in solemn agitation, "Don't say anything! Don't breathe!"
"Oh, I won't interfere! I never do. I'd rather have her for a daughter-in-law than a wife, by a long shot. Claude's more of a fool than I thought him." He picked up his hat and strolled down to the barn, but his wife did not recover her composure so easily. She left the chair where she had hopefully settled herself for comfort, took up a feather duster and began moving distractedly about the room, brushing the surface of the furniture. When the war news was bad, or when she felt troubled about Claude, she set to cleaning house or overhauling the closets, thankful to be able to put some little thing to rights in such a disordered world.
As soon as the fall planting was done, Claude got the well borers out from town to drill his new well, and while they were at work he began digging his cellar. He was building his house on the level stretch beside his father's timber claim because, when he was a little boy, he had thought that grove of trees the most beautiful spot in the world. It was a square of about thirty acres, set out in ash and box-elder and cotton-woods, with a thick mulberry hedge on the south side. The trees had been neglected of late years, but if he lived up there he could manage to trim them and care for them at odd moments.
Every morning now he ran up in the Ford and worked at his cellar. He had heard that the deeper a cellar was, the better it was; and he meant that this one should be deep enough. One day Leonard Dawson stopped to see what progress he was making. Standing on the edge of the hole, he shouted to the lad who was sweating below.
"My God, Claude, what do you want of a cellar as deep as that? When your wife takes a notion to go to China, you can open a trap-door and drop her through!"
Claude flung down his pick and ran up the ladder. "Enid's not going to have notions of that sort," he said wrathfully.
"Well, you needn't get mad. I'm glad to hear it. I was sorry when the other girl went. It always looked to me like Enid had her face set for China, but I haven't seen her for a good while,--not since before she went off to Michigan with the old lady."
After Leonard was gone, Claude returned to his work, still out of humour. He was not altogether happy in his mind about Enid. When he went down to the mill it was usually Mr. Royce, not Enid, who sought to detain him, followed him down the path to the gate and seemed sorry to see him go. He could not blame Enid with any lack of interest in what he was doing. She talked and thought of nothing but the new house, and most of her suggestions were good. He often wished she would ask for something unreasonable and extravagant. But she had no selfish whims, and even insisted that the comfortable upstairs sleeping room he had planned with such care should be reserved for a guest chamber.
As the house began to take shape, Enid came up often in her car, to watch its growth, to show Claude samples of wallpapers and draperies, or a design for a window-seat she had cut from some magazine. There could be no question of her pride in every detail. The disappointing thing was that she seemed more interested in the house than in him. These months when they could be together as much as they pleased, she treated merely as a period of time in which they were building a house.
Everything would be all right when they were married, Claude told himself. He believed in the transforming power of marriage, as his mother believed in the miraculous effects of conversion. Marriage reduced all women to a common denominator ; changed a cool, self-satisfied girl into a loving and generous one. It was quite right that Enid should be unconscious now of everything that she was to be when she was his wife. He told himself he wouldn't want it otherwise.
But he was lonely, all the same. He lavished upon the little house the solicitude and cherishing care that Enid seemed not to need. He stood over the carpenters urging the greatest nicety in the finish of closets and cupboards, the convenient placing of shelves, the exact joining of sills and casings. Often he stayed late in the evening, after the workmen with their noisy boots had gone home to supper. He sat down on a rafter or on the skeleton of the upper porch and quite lost himself in brooding, in anticipation of things that seemed as far away as ever. The dying light, the quiet stars coming out, were friendly and sympathetic. One night a bird flew in and fluttered wildly about among the partitions, shrieking with fright before it darted out into the dusk through one of the upper windows and found its way to freedom.
When the carpenters were ready to put in the staircase, Claude telephoned Enid and asked her to come and show them just what height she wanted the steps made. His mother had always had to climb stairs that were too steep. Enid stopped her car at the Frankfort High School at four o'clock and persuaded Gladys Farmer to drive out with her.
When they arrived they found Claude working on the lattice enclosure of the back porch. "Claude is like Jonah," Enid laughed. "He wants to plant gourd vines here, so they will run over the lattice and make shade. I can think of other vines that might be more ornamental."
Claude put down his hammer and said coaxingly: "Have you ever seen a gourd vine when it had something to climb on, Enid? You wouldn't believe how pretty they are; big green leaves, and gourds and yellow blossoms hanging all over them at the same time. An old German woman who keeps a lunch counter at one of those stations on the road to Lincoln has them running up her back porch, and I've wanted to plant some ever since I first saw hers."
Enid smiled indulgently. "Well, I suppose you'll let me have clematis for the front porch, anyway? The men are getting ready to leave, so we'd better see about the steps."
After the workmen had gone, Claude took the girls upstairs by the ladder. They emerged from a little entry into a large room which extended over both the front and back parlours. The carpenters called it "the pool hall". There were two long windows, like doors, opening upon the porch roof, and in the sloping ceiling were two dormer windows, one looking north to the timber claim and the other south toward Lovely Creek. Gladys at once felt a singular pleasantness about this chamber, empty and unplastered as it was. "What a lovely room!" she exclaimed.
Claude took her up eagerly. "Don't you think so? You see it's my idea to have the second floor for ourselves, instead of cutting it up into little boxes as people usually do. We can come up here and forget the farm and the kitchen and all our troubles. I've made a big closet for each of us, and got everything just right. And now Enid wants to keep this room for preachers!"
Enid laughed. "Not only for preachers, Claude. For Gladys, when she comes to visit us--you see she likes it--and for your mother when she comes to spend a week and rest. I don't think we ought to take the best room for ourselves."
"Why not?" Claude argued hotly. "I'm building the whole house for ourselves. Come out on the porch roof, Gladys. Isn't this fine for hot nights? I want to put a railing round and make this into a balcony, where we can have chairs and a hammock."
Gladys sat down on the low window-sill. "Enid, you'd be foolish to keep this for a guest room. Nobody would ever enjoy it as much as you would. You can see the whole country from here."
Enid smiled, but showed no sign of relenting. "Let's wait and watch the sun go down. Be careful, Claude. It makes me nervous to see you lying there."
He was stretched out on the edge of the roof, one leg hanging over, and his head pillowed on his arm. The flat fields turned red, the distant windmills flashed white, and little rosy clouds appeared in the sky above them.
"If I make this into a balcony," Claude murmured, "the peak of the roof will always throw a shadow over it in the afternoon, and at night the stars will be right overhead. It will be a fine place to sleep in harvest time."
"Oh, you could always come up here to sleep on a hot night," Enid said quickly.
"It wouldn't be the same."
They sat watching the light die out of the sky, and Enid and Gladys drew close together as the coolness of the autumn evening came on. The three friends were thinking about the same thing; and yet, if by some sorcery each had begun to speak his thoughts aloud, amazement and bitterness would have fallen upon all. Enid's reflections were the most blameless. The discussion about the guest room had reminded her of Brother Weldon. In September, on her way to Michigan with Mrs. Royce, she had stopped for a day in Lincoln to take counsel with Arthur Weldon as to whether she ought to marry one whom she described to him as "an unsaved man." Young Mr. Weldon approached this subject with a cautious tread, but when he learned that the man in question was Claude Wheeler, he became more partisan than was his wont. He seemed to think that her marrying Claude was the one way to reclaim him, and did not hesitate to say that the most important service devout girls could perform for the church was to bring promising young men to its support. Enid had been almost certain that Mr. Weldon would approve her course before she consulted him, but his concurrence always gratified her pride. She told him that when she had a home of her own she would expect him to spend a part of his summer vacation there, and he blushingly expressed his willingness to do so.
Gladys, too, was lost in her own thoughts, sitting with that ease which made her seem rather indolent, her head resting against the empty window frame, facing the setting sun. The rosy light made her brown eyes gleam like old copper, and there was a moody look in them, as if in her mind she were defying something. When he happened to glance at her, it occurred to Claude that it was a hard destiny to be the exceptional person. in a community, to be more gifted or more intelligent than the rest. For a girl it must be doubly hard. He sat up suddenly and broke the long silence.
"I forgot, Enid, I have a secret to tell you. Over in the timber claim the other day I started up a flock of quail. They must be the only ones left in all this neighbourhood, and I doubt if they ever come out of the timber. The bluegrass hasn't been mowed in there for years,--not since I first went away to school, and maybe they live on the grass seeds. In summer, of course, there are mulberries."
Enid wondered whether the birds could have learned enough about the world to stay hidden in the timber lot. Claude was sure they had.
"Nobody ever goes near the place except Father; he stops there sometimes. Maybe he has seen them and never said a word. It would be just like him." He told them he had scattered shelled corn in the grass, so that the birds would not be tempted to fly over into Leonard Dawson's cornfield. "If Leonard saw them, he'd likely take a shot at them."
"Why don't you ask him not to?" Enid suggested.
Claude laughed. "That would be asking a good deal. When a bunch of quail rise out of a cornfield they're a mighty tempting sight, if a man likes hunting. We'll have a picnic for you when you come out next summer, Gladys. There are some pretty places over there in the timber."
Gladys started up. "Why, it's night already! It's lovely here, but you must get me home, Enid."
They found it dark inside. Claude took Enid down the ladder and out to her car, and then went back for Gladys. She was sitting on the floor at the top of the ladder. Giving her his hand he helped her to rise.
"So you like my little house," he said gratefully.
"Yes. Oh, yes!" Her voice was full of feeling, but she did not exert herself to say more. Claude descended in front of her to keep her from slipping. She hung back while he led her through confusing doorways and helped her over the piles of laths that littered the floors. At the edge of the gaping cellar entrance she stopped and leaned wearily on his arm for a moment. She did not speak, but he understood that his new house made her sad; that she, too, had come to the place where she must turn out of the old path. He longed to whisper to her and beg her not to marry his brother. He lingered and hesitated, fumbling in the dark. She had his own cursed kind of sensibility; she would expect too much from life and be disappointed. He was reluctant to lead her out into the chilly evening without some word of entreaty. He would willingly have prolonged their passage,-- through many rooms and corridors. Perhaps, had that been possible, the strength in him would have found what it was seeking; even in this short interval it had stirred and made itself felt, had uttered a confused appeal. Claude was greatly surprised at himself.