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Willa Cather (1873–1947). One of Ours. 1922.

Book Two: Enid


CLAUDE’S first trip to Frankfort was to get his hair cut. After leaving the barber-shop he presented himself, glistening with bayrum, at Jason Royce’s office. Mr. Royce, in the act of closing his safe, turned and took the young man by the hand.

“Hello, Claude, glad to see you around again! Sickness can’t do much to a husky young farmer like you. With old fellows, it’s another story. I’m just starting off to have a look at my alfalfa, south of the river. Get in and go along with me.”

They went out to the open car that stood by the sidewalk, and when they were spinning along between fields of ripening grain Claude broke the silence. “I expect you know what I want to see you about, Mr. Royce?”

The older man shook his head. He had been preoccupied and grim ever since they started.

“Well,” Claude went on modestly, “it oughtn’t to surprise you to hear that I’ve set my heart on Enid. I haven’t said anything to her yet, but if you’re not against me, I’m going to try to persuade her to marry me.”

“Marriage is a final sort of thing, Claude,” said Mr. Royce. He sat slumping in his seat, watching the road ahead of him with intense abstraction, looking more gloomy and grizzled than usual. “Enid is a vegetarian, you know,” he remarked unexpectedly.

Claude smiled. “That could hardly make any difference to me, Mr. Royce.”

The other nodded slightly. “I know. At your age you think it doesn’t. Such things do make a difference, however.” His lips closed over his half-dead cigar, and for some time he did not open them.

“Enid is a good girl,” he said at last. “Strictly speaking, she has more brains than a girl needs. If Mrs. Royce had another daughter at home, I’d take Enid into my office. She has good judgment. I don’t know but she’d run a business better than a house.” Having got this out, Mr. Royce relaxed his frown, took his cigar from his mouth, looked at it, and put it back between his teeth without relighting it.

Claude was watching him with surprise. “There’s no question about Enid, Mr. Royce. I didn’t come to ask you about her,” he exclaimed. “I came to ask if you’d be willing to have me for a son-in-law. I know, and you know, that Enid could do a great deal better than to marry me. I surely haven’t made much of a showing, so far.”

“Here we are,” announced Mr. Royce. “I’ll leave the car under this elm, and we’ll go up to the north end of the field and have a look.”

They crawled under the wire fence and started across the rough ground through a field of purple blossoms. Clouds of yellow butterflies darted up before them. They walked jerkily, breaking through the sun-baked crust into the soft soil beneath. Mr. Royce lit a fresh cigar, and as he threw away the match let his hand drop on the young man’s shoulder. “I always envied your father. You took my fancy when you were a little shaver, and I used to let you in to see the water-wheel, When I gave up water power and put in an engine, I said to myself: ‘There’s just one fellow in the country will be sorry to see the old wheel go, and that’s Claude Wheeler.’”

“I hope you don’t think I’m too young to marry,” Claude said as they tramped on.

“No, it’s right and proper a young man should marry. I don’t say anything against marriage,” Mr. Royce protested doggedly. “You may find some opposition in Enid’s missionary motives. I don’t know how she feels about that now. I don’t enquire. I’d be pleased to see her get rid of such notions. They don’t do a woman any good.”

“I want to help her get rid of them. If it’s all right with you, I hope I can persuade Enid to marry me this fall.”

Jason Royce turned his head quickly toward his companion, studied his artless, hopeful countenance for a moment, and then looked away with a frown.

The alfalfa field sloped upward at one corner, lay like a bright green-and-purple handkerchief thrown down on the hillside. At the uppermost angle grew a slender young cottonwood, with leaves as light and agitated as the swarms of little butterflies that hovered above the clover. Mr. Royce made for this tree, took off his black coat, rolled it up, and sat down on it in the flickering shade. His shirt showed big blotches of moisture, and the sweat was rolling in clear drops along the creases in his brown neck. He sat with his hands clasped over his knees, his heels braced in the soft soil, and looked blankly off across the field. He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could ever come to share his secret, was to live. His strong yellow teeth closed tighter and tighter on the cigar, which had gone out like the first. He did not look at Claude, but while he watched the wind plough soft, flowery roads in the field, the boy’s face was clearly before him, with its expression of reticent pride melting into the desire to please, and the slight stiffness of his shoulders, set in a kind of stubborn loyalty. Claude lay on the sod beside him, rather tired after his walk in the sun, a little melancholy, though he did not know why.

After a long while Mr. Royce unclasped his broad, thick-fingered miller’s hands, and for a moment took out the macerated cigar. “Well, Claude,” he said with determined cheerfulness, “we’ll always be better friends than is common between father and son-in-law. You’ll find out that pretty nearly everything you believe about life—about marriage, especially—is lies. I don’t know why people prefer to live in that sort of a world, but they do.”