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

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


MRS. WHEELER was afraid that Claude might not find the old place comfortable, after having had a house of his own. She put her best rocking chair and a reading lamp in his bedroom. He often sat there all evening, shading his eyes with his hand, pretending to read. When he stayed downstairs after supper, his mother and Mahailey were grateful. Besides collecting war pictures, Mahailey now hunted through the old magazines in the attic for pictures of China. She had marked on her big kitchen calendar the day when Enid would arrive in Hong-Kong.

“Mr. Claude,” she would say as she stood at the sink washing the supper dishes, “it’s broad daylight over where Miss Enid is, ain’t it? Cause the world’s round, an’ the old sun, he’s a-shinin’ over there for the yaller people.”

From time to time, when they were working together, Mrs. Wheeler told Mahailey what she knew about the customs of the Chinese. The old woman had never had two impersonal interests at the same time before, and she scarcely knew what to do with them. She would murmur on, half to Claude and half to herself: “They ain’t fightin’ over there where Miss Enid is, is they? An’ she won’t have to wear their kind of clothes, cause she’s a white woman. She won’t let ’em kill their girl babies nor do such awful things like they always have, an’ she won’t let ’em pray to them stone iboles, cause they can’t help ’em none. I ’spect Miss Enid’ll do a heap of good, all the time.”

Behind her diplomatic monologues, however, Mahailey had her own ideas, and she was greatly scandalized at Enid’s departure. She was afraid people would say that Claude’s wife had “run off an’ lef’ him,” and in the Virginia mountains, where her social standards had been formed, a husband or wife thus deserted was the object of boisterous ridicule. She once stopped Mrs. Wheeler in a dark corner of the cellar to whisper, “Mr. Claude’s wife ain’t goin’ to stay off there, like her sister, is she?”

If one of the Yoeder boys or Susie Dawson happened to be at the Wheelers’ for dinner, Mahailey never failed to refer to Enid in a loud voice. “Mr. Claude’s wife, she cuts her potatoes up raw in the pan an’ fries ’em. She don’t boil ’em first like I do. I know she’s an awful good cook, I know she is.” She felt that easy references to the absent wife made things look better.

Ernest Havel came to see Claude now, but not often. They both felt it would be indelicate to renew their former intimacy. Ernest still felt aggrieved about his beer, as if Enid had snatched the tankard from his lips with her own corrective hand. Like Leonard, he believed that Claude had made a bad bargain in matrimony; but instead of feeling sorry for him, Ernest wanted to see him convinced and punished. When he married Enid, Claude had been false to liberal principles, and it was only right that he should pay for his apostasy. The very first time he came to spend an evening at the Wheelers’ after Claude came home to live, Ernest undertook to explain his objections to Prohibition. Claude shrugged his shoulders.

“Why not drop it? It’s a matter that doesn’t interest me, one way or the other.”

Ernest was offended and did not come back for nearly a month—not, indeed, until the announcement that Germany would resume unrestricted submarine warfare made every one look questioningly at his neighbour.

He walked into the Wheelers’ kitchen the night after this news reached the farming country, and found Claude and his mother sitting at the table, reading the papers aloud to each other in snatches. Ernest had scarcely taken a seat when the telephone bell rang. Claude answered the call.

“It’s the telegraph operator at Frankfort,” he said, as he hung up the receiver. “He repeated a message from Father, sent from Wray: Will be home day after tomorrow. Read the papers. What does he mean? What does he suppose we are doing?”

“It means he considers our situation very serious. It’s not like him to telegraph except in case of illness.” Mrs. Wheeler rose and walked distractedly to the telephone box, as if it might further disclose her husband’s state of mind.

“But what a queer message! It was addressed to you, too, Mother, not to me.”

“He would know how I feel about it. Some of your father’s people were sea-going men, out of Portsmouth. He knows what it means when our shipping is told where it can go on the ocean, and where it cannot. It isn’t possible that Washington can take such an affront for us. To think that at this time, of all times, we should have a Democratic administration!”

Claude laughed. “Sit down, Mother. Wait a day or two. Give them time.”

“The war will be over before Washington can do anything, Mrs. Wheeler,” Ernest declared gloomily, “England will be starved out, and France will be beaten to a standstill. The whole German army will be on the Western front now. What could this country do? How long do you suppose it takes to make an army?”

Mrs. Wheeler stopped short in her restless pacing and met his moody glance. “I don’t know anything, Ernest, but I believe the Bible. I believe that in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed!”

Ernest looked at the floor. He respected faith. As he said, you must respect it or despise it, for there was nothing else to do.

Claude sat leaning his elbows on the table. “It always comes back to the same thing, Mother. Even if a raw army could do anything, how would we get it over there? Here’s one naval authority who says the Germans are turning out submarines at the rate of three a day. They probably didn’t spring this on us until they had enough built to keep the ocean clean.”

“I don’t pretend to say what we could accomplish, son. But we must stand somewhere, morally. They have told us all along that we could be more helpful to the Allies out of the war than in it, because we could send munitions and supplies. If we agree to withdraw that aid, where are we? Helping Germany, all the time we are pretending to mind our own business! If our only alternative is to be at the bottom of the sea, we had better be there!”

“Mother, do sit down! We can’t settle it tonight. I never saw you so worked up.”

“Your father is worked up, too, or he would never have sent that telegram.” Mrs. Wheeler reluctantly took up her workbasket, and the boys talked with their old, easy friendliness.

When Ernest left, Claude walked as far as the Yoeders’ place with him, and came back across the snow-drifted fields, under the frosty brilliance of the winter stars. As he looked up at them, he felt more than ever that they must have something to do with the fate of nations, and with the incomprehensible things that were happening in the world. In the ordered universe there must be some mind that read the riddle of this one unhappy planet, that knew what was forming in the dark eclipse of this hour. A question hung in the air; over all this quiet land about him, over him, over his mother, even. He was afraid for his country, as he had been that night on the State House steps in Denver, when this war was undreamed of, hidden in the womb of time.

Claude and his mother had not long to wait. Three days later they knew that the German ambassador had been dismissed, and the American ambassador recalled from Berlin. To older men these events were subjects to think and converse about; but to boys like Claude they were life and death, predestination.