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

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


CLAUDE had been married a year and a half. One December morning he got a telephone message from his father-in-law, asking him to come in to Frankfort at once. He found Mr. Royce sunk in his desk-chair, smoking as usual, with several foreign-looking letters on the table before him. As he took these out of their envelopes and sorted the pages, Claude noticed how unsteady his hands had become.

One letter, from the chief of the medical staff in the mission school where Caroline Royce taught, informed Mr. Royce that his daughter was seriously ill in the mission hospital. She would have to be sent to a more salubrious part of the country for rest and treatment, and would not be strong enough to return to her duties for a year or more. If some member of her family could come out to take care of her, it would relieve the school authorities of great anxiety. There was also a letter from a fellow teacher, and a rather incoherent one from Caroline herself. After Claude finished reading them, Mr. Royce pushed a box of cigars toward him and began to talk despondently about missionaries.

“I could go to her,” he complained, “but what good would that do? I’m not in sympathy with her ideas, and it would only fret her. You can see she’s made her mind up not to come home. I don’t believe in one people trying to force their ways or their religion on another. I’m not that kind of man.” He sat looking at his cigar. After a long pause he broke out suddenly, “China has been drummed into my ears … It seems like a long way to go to hunt for trouble, don’t it? A man hasn’t got much control over his own life, Claude. If it ain’t poverty or disease that torments him, it’s a name on the map. I could have made out pretty well, if it hadn’t been for China, and some other things.… If Carrie’d had to teach for her clothes and help pay off my notes, like old man Harrison’s daughters, like enough she’d have stayed at home. There’s always something. I don’t know what to say about showing these letters to Enid.”

“Oh, she will have to know about it, Mr. Royce. If she feels that she ought to go to Carrie, it wouldn’t be right for me to interfere.”

Mr. Royce shook his head. “I don’t know. It don’t seem fair that China should hang over you, too.”

When Claude got home he remarked as he handed Enid the letters, “Your father has been a good deal upset by this. I never saw him look so old as he did today.”

Enid studied their contents, sitting at her orderly little desk, while Claude pretended to read the paper.

“It seems clear that I am the one to go,” she said when she had finished.

“You think it’s necessary for some one to go? I don’t see it.”

“It would look very strange if none of us went,” Enid replied with spirit.

“How, look strange?”

“Why, it would look to her associates as if her family had no feeling.”

“Oh, if that’s all!” Claude smiled perversely and took up his paper again. “I wonder how it will look to people here if you go off and leave your husband?”

“What a mean thing to say, Claude!” She rose sharply, then hesitated, perplexed. “People here know me better than that. It isn’t as if you couldn’t be perfectly comfortable at your mother’s.” As he did not glance up from his paper, she went into the kitchen.

Claude sat still, listening to Enid’s quick movements as she opened up the range to get supper. The light in the room grew greyer. Outside the fields melted into one another as evening came on. The young trees in the yard bent and whipped about under a bitter north wind. He had often thought with pride that winter died at his front doorstep; within, no draughty halls, no chilly corners. This was their second year here. When he was driving home, the thought that he might be free of this house for a long while had stirred a pleasant excitement in him; but now, he didn’t want to leave it. Something grew soft in him. He wondered whether they couldn’t try again, and make things go better. Enid was singing in the kitchen in a subdued, rather lonely voice. He rose and went out for his milking coat and pail. As he passed his wife by the window, he stopped and put his arm about her questioningly.

She looked up. “That’s right. You’re feeling better about it, aren’t you? I thought you would. Gracious, what a smelly coat, Claude! I must find another for you.”

Claude knew that tone. Enid never questioned the rightness of her own decisions. When she made up her mind, there was no turning her. He went down the path to the barn with his hands stuffed in his trousers pockets, his bright pail hanging on his arm. Try again—what was there to try? Platitudes, littleness, falseness.… His life was choking him, and he hadn’t the courage to break with it. Let her go! Let her go when she would!… What a hideous world to be born into! Or was it hideous only for him? Everything he touched went wrong under his hand—always had.

When they sat down at the supper table in the back parlour an hour later, Enid looked worn, as if this time her decision had cost her something. “I should think you might have a restful winter at your mother’s,” she began cheerfully. “You won’t have nearly so much to look after as you do here. We needn’t disturb things in this house. I will take the silver down to Mother, and we can leave everything else just as it is. Would there be room for my car in your father’s garage? You might find it a convenience.”

“Oh, no! I won’t need it. I’ll put it up at the mill house,” he answered with an effort at carelessness.

All the familiar objects that stood about them in the lamplight seemed stiller and more solemn than usual, as if they were holding their breath.

“I suppose you had better take the chickens over to your mother’s,” Enid continued evenly. “But I shouldn’t like them to get mixed with her Plymouth Rocks; there’s not a dark feather among them now. Do ask Mother Wheeler to use all the eggs, and not to let my hens set in the spring.”

“In the spring?” Claude looked up from his plate.

“Of course, Claude. I could hardly get back before next fall, if I’m to be of any help to poor Carrie. I might try to be home for harvest, if that would make it more convenient for you.” She rose to bring in the dessert.

“Oh, don’t hurry on my account!” he muttered, staring after her disappearing figure.

Enid came back with the hot pudding and the after-dinner coffee things. “This has come on us so suddenly that we must make our plans at once,” she explained. “I should think your mother would be glad to keep Rose for us; she is such a good cow. And then you can have all the cream you want.”

He took the little gold-rimmed cup she held out to him. “If you are going to be gone until next fall, I shall sell Rose,” he announced gruffly.

“But why? You might look a long time before you found another like her.”

“I shall sell her, anyhow. The horses, of course, are Father’s; he paid for them. If you clear out, he may want to rent this place. You may find a tenant in here when you get back from China.” Claude swallowed his coffee, put down the cup, and went into the front parlour, where he lit a cigar. He walked up and down, keeping his eyes fixed upon his wife, who still sat at the table in the circle of light from the hanging lamp. Her head, bent forward a little, showed the neat part of her brown hair. When she was perplexed, her face always looked sharper, her chin longer.

“If you’ve no feeling for the place,” said Claude from the other room, “you can hardly expect me to hang around and take care of it. All the time you were campaigning, I played housekeeper here.”

Enid’s eyes narrowed, but she did not flush. Claude had never seen a wave of colour come over his wife’s pale, smooth cheeks.

“Don’t be childish. You know I care for this place; it’s our home. But no feeling would be right that kept me from doing my duty. You are well, and you have your mother’s house to go to. Carrie is ill and among strangers.”

She began to gather up the dishes. Claude stepped quickly out into the light and confronted her. “It’s not only your going. You know what’s the matter with me. It’s because you want to go. You are glad of a chance to get away among all those preachers, with their smooth talk and make-believe.”

Enid took up the tray. “If I am glad, it’s because you are not willing to govern our lives by Christian ideals. There is something in you that rebels all the time. So many important questions have come up since our marriage, and you have been indifferent or sarcastic about every one of them. You want to lead a purely selfish life.”

She walked resolutely out of the room and shut the door behind her. Later, when she came back, Claude was not there. His hat and coat were gone from the hat rack; he must have let himself out quietly by the front door. Enid sat up until eleven and then went to bed.

In the morning, on coming out from her bedroom, she found Claude asleep on the lounge, dressed, with his overcoat on. She had a moment of terror and bent over him, but she could not detect any smell of spirits. She began preparations for breakfast, moving quietly.

Having once made up her mind to go out to her sister, Enid lost no time. She engaged passage and cabled the mission school. She left Frankfort the week before Christmas. Claude and Ralph took her as far as Denver and put her on a trans-continental express. When Claude came home, he moved over to his mother’s, and sold his cow and chickens to Leonard Dawson. Except when he went to see Mr. Royce, he seldom left the farm now, and he avoided the neighbours. He felt that they were discussing his domestic affairs,—as, of course, they were. The Royces and the Wheelers, they said, couldn’t behave like anybody else, and it was no use their trying. If Claude built the best house in the neighbourhood, he just naturally wouldn’t live in it. And if he had a wife at all, it was like him to have a wife in China!

One snowy day, when nobody was about, Claude took the big car and went over to his own place to close the house for the winter and bring away the canned fruit and vegetables left in the cellar. Enid had packed her best linen in her cedar chest and had put the kitchen and china closets in scrupulous order before she went away. He began covering the upholstered chairs and the mattresses with sheets, rolled up the rugs, and fastened the windows securely. As he worked, his hands grew more and more numb and listless, and his heart was like a lump of ice. All these things that he had selected with care and in which he had taken such pride, were no more to him now than the lumber piled in the shop of any second-hand dealer.

How inherently mournful and ugly such objects were, when the feeling that had made them precious no longer existed! The débris of human life was more worthless and ugly than the dead and decaying things in nature. Rubbish … junk … his mind could not picture anything that so exposed and condemned all the dreary, weary, ever-repeated actions by which life is continued from day to day. Actions without meaning.… As he looked out and saw the grey landscape through the gently falling snow, he could not help thinking how much better it would be if people could go to sleep like the fields; could be blanketed down under the snow, to wake with their hurts healed and their defeats forgotten. He wondered how he was to go on through the years ahead of him, unless he could get rid of this sick feeling in his soul.

At last he locked the door, put the key in his pocket, and went over to the timber claim to smoke a cigar and say goodbye to the place. There he soberly walked about for more than an hour, under the crooked trees with empty birds’ nests in their forks. Every time he came to a break in the hedge, he could see the little house, giving itself up so meekly to solitude. He did not believe that he would ever live there again. Well, at any rate, the money his father had put into the place would not be lost; he could always get a better tenant for having a comfortable house there. Several of the boys in the neighbourhood were planning to be married within the year. The future of the house was safe. And he? He stopped short in his walk; his feet had made an uncertain, purposeless trail all over the white ground. It vexed him to see his own footsteps. What was it—what was the matter with him? Why, at least, could he not stop feeling things, and hoping? What was there to hope for now?

He heard a sound of distress, and looking back, saw the barn cat, that had been left behind to pick up her living. She was standing inside the hedge, her jet black fur ruffled against the wet flakes, one paw lifted, mewing miserably. Claude went over and picked her up.

“What’s the matter, Blackie? Mice getting scarce in the barn? Mahailey will say you are bad luck. Maybe you are, but you can’t help it, can you?” He slipped her into his overcoat pocket. Later, when he was getting into his car, he tried to dislodge her and put her in a basket, but she clung to her nest in his pocket and dug her claws into the lining. He laughed. “Well, if you are bad luck, I guess you are going to stay right with me!”

She looked up at him with startled yellow eyes and did not even mew.