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

Book Two: Enid


ON the night before his wedding Claude went to bed early. He had been dashing about with Ralph all day in the car, making final preparations, and was worn out. He fell asleep almost at once. The women of the household could not so easily forget the great event of tomorrow. After the supper dishes were washed, Mahailey clambered up to the attic to get the quilt she had so long been saving for a wedding present for Claude. She took it out of the chest, unfolded it, and counted the stars in the pattern—counting was an accomplishment she was proud of—before she wrapped it up. It was to go down to the mill house with the other presents tomorrow. Mrs. Wheeler went to bed many times that night. She kept thinking of things that ought to be looked after; getting up and going to make sure that Claude’s heavy underwear had been put into his trunk, against the chance of cold in the mountains; or creeping downstairs to see that the six roasted chickens which were to help out at the wedding supper were securely covered from the cats. As she went about these tasks, she prayed constantly. She had not prayed so long and fervently since the battle of the Marne.

Early the next morning Ralph loaded the big car with the presents and baskets of food and ran down to the Royces’. Two motors from town were already standing in the mill yard; they had brought a company of girls who came with all the June roses in Frankfort to trim the house for the wedding. When Ralph tooted his horn, half-a-dozen of them ran out to greet him, reproaching him because he had not brought his brother along. Ralph was immediately pressed into service. He carried the step-ladder wherever he was told, drove nails, and wound thorny sprays of rambler roses around the pillars between the front and back parlours, making the arch under which the ceremony was to take place.

Gladys Farmer had not been able to leave her classes at the High School to help in this friendly work, but at eleven o’clock a livery automobile drove up, laden with white and pink peonies from her front yard, and bringing a box of hothouse flowers she had ordered for Enid from Hastings. The girls admired them, but declared that Gladys was extravagant, as usual; the flowers from her own yard would really have been enough. The car was driven by a lank, ragged boy who worked about the town garage, and who was called “Silent Irv,” because nobody could ever get a word out of him. He had almost no voice at all,—a thin little squeak in the top of his throat, like the gasping whisper of a medium in her trance state. When he came to the front door, both arms full of peonies, he managed to wheeze out:

“These are from Miss Farmer. There are some more down there.”

The girls went back to his car with him, and he took out a square box, tied up with white ribbons and little silver bells, containing the bridal bouquet.

“How did you happen to get these?” Ralph asked the thin boy. “I was to go to town for them.”

The messenger swallowed. “Miss Farmer told me if there were any other flowers at the station marked for here, I should bring them along.”

“That was nice of her.” Ralph thrust his hand into his trousers pocket. “How much? I’ll settle with you before I forget.”

A pink flush swept over the boy’s pale face,—a delicate face under ragged hair, contracted by a kind of shrinking unhappiness. His eyes were always half-closed, as if he did not want to see the world around him, or to be seen by it. He went about like somebody in a dream. “Miss Farmer,” he whispered, “has paid me.”

“Well, she thinks of everything!” exclaimed one of the girls. “You used to go to school to Gladys, didn’t you, Irv?”

“Yes, mam.” He got into his car without opening the door, slipping like an eel round the steering-rod, and drove off.

The girls followed Ralph up the gravel walk toward the house. One whispered to the others: “Do you suppose Gladys will come out tonight with Bayliss Wheeler? I always thought she had a pretty warm spot in her heart for Claude, myself.”

Some one changed the subject. “I can’t get over hearing Irv talk so much. Gladys must have put a spell on him.”

“She was always kind to him in school,” said the girl who had questioned the silent boy. “She said he was good in his studies, but he was so frightened he could never recite. She let him write out the answers at his desk.”

Ralph stayed for lunch, playing about with the girls until his mother telephoned for him. “Now I’ll have to go home and look after my brother, or he’ll turn up tonight in a striped shirt.”

“Give him our love,” the girls called after him, “and tell him not to be late.”

As he drove toward the farm, Ralph met Dan, taking Claude’s trunk into town. He slowed his car. “Any message?” he called.

Dan grinned. “Naw. I left him doin’ as well as could be expected.”

Mrs. Wheeler met Ralph on the stairs. “He’s up in his room. He complains his new shoes are too tight. I think it’s nervousness. Perhaps he’ll let you shave him; I’m sure he’ll cut himself. And I wish the barber hadn’t cut his hair so short, Ralph. I hate this new fashion of shearing men behind the ears. The back of his neck is the ugliest part of a man.” She spoke with such resentment that Ralph broke into a laugh.

“Why, Mother, I thought all men looked alike to you! Anyhow, Claude’s no beauty.”

“When will you want your bath? I’ll have to manage so that everybody won’t be calling for hot water at once.” She turned to Mr. Wheeler who sat writing a check at the secretary. “Father, could you take your bath now, and be out of the way?”

“Bath?” Mr. Wheeler shouted, “I don’t want any bath! I’m not going to be married tonight. I guess we don’t have to boil the whole house for Enid.”

Ralph snickered and shot upstairs. He found Claude sitting on the bed, with one shoe off and one shoe on. A pile of socks lay scattered on the rug. A suitcase stood open on one chair and a black travelling bag on another.

“Are you sure they’re too small?” Ralph asked.

“About four sizes.”

“Well, why didn’t you get them big enough?”

“I did. That shark in Hastings worked off another pair on me when I wasn’t looking. That’s all right,” snatching away the shoe his brother had picked up to examine. “I don’t care, so long as I can stand in them. You’d better go telephone the depot and ask if the train’s on time.”

“They won’t know yet. It’s seven hours till it’s due.”

“Then telephone later. But find out, somehow. I don’t want to stand around that station, waiting for the train.”

Ralph whistled. Clearly, his young man was going to be hard to manage. He proposed a bath as a soothing measure. No, Claude had had his bath. Had he, then, packed his suitcase?

“How the devil can I pack it when I don’t know what I’m going to put on?”

“You’ll put on one shirt and one pair of socks. I’m going to get some of this stuff out of the way for you.” Ralph caught up a handful of socks and fell to sorting them. Several had bright red spots on the toe. He began to laugh.

“I know why your shoe hurts, you’ve cut your foot!”

Claude sprang up as if a hornet had stung him. “Will you get out of here,” he shouted, “and let me alone?”

Ralph vanished. He told his mother he would dress at once, as they might have to use force with Claude at the last moment.

The wedding ceremony was to be at eight, supper was to follow, and Claude and Enid were to leave Frankfort at 10:25, on the Denver express. At six o’clock, when Ralph knocked at his brother’s door, he found him shaved and brushed, and dressed, except for his coat. His tucked shirt was not rumpled, and his tie was properly knotted. Whatever pain they concealed, his patent leather shoes were smooth and glistening and resolutely pointed.

“Are you packed?” Ralph asked in astonishment.

“Nearly. I wish you’d go over things and make them look a little neater, if you can. I’d hate to have a girl see the inside of that suitcase, the way it is. Where shall I put my cigars? They’ll make everything smell, wherever I put them. All my clothes seem to smell of cooking, or starch, or something. I don’t know what Mahailey does to them,” he ended bitterly.

Ralph looked outraged. “Well, of all ingratitude! Mahailey’s been ironing your damned old shirts for a week!”

“Yes, yes, I know. Don’t rattle me. I forgot to put any handkerchiefs in my trunk, so you’ll have to get the whole bunch in somewhere.”

Mr. Wheeler appeared in the doorway, his Sunday black trousers gallowsed up high over a white shirt, wafting a rich odor of bayrum from his tumbled hair. He held a thin folded paper delicately between his thick fingers.

“Where is your bill-book, son?”

Claude caught up his discarded trousers and extracted a square of leather from the pocket. His father took it and placed the bit of paper inside with the bank notes. “You may want to pick up some trifle your wife fancies,” he said. “Have you got your railroad tickets in here? Here is your trunk check Dan brought back. Don’t forget, I’ve put it in with your tickets and marked it C. W., so you’ll know which is your check and which is Enid’s.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Claude had already drawn from the bank all the money he would need. This additional bank check was Mr. Wheeler’s admission that he was sorry for some sarcastic remarks he had made a few days ago, when he discovered that Claude had reserved a stateroom on the Denver express. Claude had answered curtly that when Enid and her mother went to Michigan they always had a stateroom, and he wasn’t going to ask her to travel less comfortably with him.

At seven o’clock the Wheeler family set out in the two cars that stood waiting by the windmill. Mr. Wheeler drove the big Cadillac, and Ralph took Mahailey and Dan in the Ford. When they reached the mill house the outer yard was already black with motors, and the porch and parlours were full of people talking and moving about.

Claude went directly upstairs. Ralph began to seat the guests, arranging the folding chairs in such a way as to leave a passage from the foot of the stairs to the floral arch he had constructed that morning. The preacher had his Bible in his hand and was standing under the light, hunting for his chapter. Enid would have preferred to have Mr. Weldon come down from Lincoln to marry her, but that would have wounded Mr. Snowberry deeply. After all, he was her minister, though he was not eloquent and persuasive like Arthur Weldon. He had fewer English words at his command than most human beings, and even those did not come to him readily. In his pulpit he sought for them and struggled with them until drops of perspiration rolled from his forehead and fell upon his coarse, matted brown beard. But he believed what he said, and language was so little an accomplishment with him that he was not tempted to say more than he believed. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War, on the losing side, and he was a simple, courageous man.

Ralph was to be both usher and best man. Gladys Farmer could not be one of the bridesmaids because she was to play the wedding march. At eight o’clock Enid and Claude came downstairs together, conducted by Ralph and followed by four girls dressed in white, like the bride. They took their places under the arch before the preacher. He began with the chapter from Genesis about the creation of man, and Adam’s rib, reading in a laboured manner, as if he did not quite know why he had selected that passage and was looking for something he did not find. His nose-glasses kept falling off and dropping upon the open book. Throughout this prolonged fumbling Enid stood calm, looking at him respectfully, very pretty in her short veil. Claude was so pale that he looked unnatural,—nobody had ever seen him like that before. His face, between his very black clothes and his smooth, sandy hair, was white and severe, and he uttered his responses in a hollow voice. Mahailey, at the back of the room, in a black hat with green gooseberries on it, was standing, in order to miss nothing. She watched Mr. Snowberry as if she hoped to catch some visible sign of the miracle he was performing. She always wondered just what it was the preacher did to make the wrongest thing in the world the rightest thing in the world.

When it was over, Enid went upstairs to put on her travelling dress, and Ralph and Gladys began seating the guests for supper. Just twenty minutes later Enid came down and took her place beside Claude at the head of the long table. The company rose and drank the bride’s health in grape-juice punch. Mr. Royce, however, while the guests were being seated, had taken Mr. Wheeler down to the fruit cellar, where the two old friends drank off a glass of well-seasoned Kentucky whiskey, and shook hands. When they came back to the table, looking younger than when they withdrew, the preacher smelled the tang of spirits and felt slighted. He looked disconsolately into his ruddy goblet and thought about the marriage at Cana. He tried to apply his Bible literally to life and, though he didn’t dare breathe it aloud in these days, he could never see why he was better than his Lord.

Ralph, as master of ceremonies, kept his head and forgot nothing. When it was time to start, he tapped Claude on the shoulder, cutting his father short in one of his best stories. Contrary to custom, the bridal couple were to go to the station unaccompanied, and they vanished from the head of the table with only a nod and a smile to the guests. Ralph hurried them into the light car, where he had already stowed Enid’s hand luggage. Only wizened little Mrs. Royce slipped out from the kitchen to bid them good-bye.

That evening some bad boys had come out from town and strewn the road near the mill with dozens of broken glass bottles, after which they hid in the wild plum bushes to wait for the fun. Ralph’s was the first car out, and though his lights glittered on this bed of jagged glass, there was no time to stop; the road was ditched on either side, so he had to drive straight ahead, and got into Frankfort on flat tires. The express whistled just as he pulled up at the station. He and Claude caught up the four pieces of hand luggage and put them in the stateroom. Leaving Enid there with the bags, the two boys went to the rear platform of the observation car to talk until the last moment. Ralph checked off on his fingers the list of things he had promised Claude to attend to. Claude thanked him feelingly. He felt that without Ralph he could never have got married at all. They had never been such good friends as during the last fortnight.

The wheels began to turn. Ralph gripped Claude’s hand, ran to the front of the car and stepped off. As Claude passed him, he stood waving his handkerchief,—a rather funny figure under the station lights, in his black clothes and his stiff straw hat, his short legs well apart, wearing his incurably jaunty air.

The train glided quietly out through the summer darkness, along the timbered river valley. Claude was alone on the back platform, smoking a nervous cigar. As they passed the deep cut where Lovely Creek flowed into the river, he saw the lights of the mill house flash for a moment in the distance. The night air was still; heavy with the smell of sweet clover that grew high along the tracks, and of wild grapevines wet with dew. The conductor came to ask for the tickets, saying with a wise smile that he had been hunting for him, as he didn’t like to trouble the lady.

After he was gone, Claude looked at his watch, threw away the end of his cigar, and went back through the Pullman cars. The passengers had gone to bed; the overhead lights were always turned low when the train left Frankfort. He made his way through the aisles of swaying green curtains, and tapped at the door of his state room. It opened a little way, and Enid stood there in a white silk dressing-gown with many ruffles, her hair in two smooth braids over her shoulders.

“Claude,” she said in a low voice, “would you mind getting a berth somewhere out in the car tonight? The porter says they are not all taken. I’m not feeling very well. I think the dressing on the chicken salad must have been too rich.”

He answered mechanically. “Yes, certainly. Can’t I get you something?”

“No, thank you. Sleep will do me more good than anything else. Good-night.”

She closed the door, and he heard the lock slip. He stood looking at the highly polished wood of the panel for a moment, then turned irresolutely and went back along the slightly swaying aisle of green curtains. In the observation car he stretched himself out upon two wicker chairs and lit another cigar. At twelve o’clock the porter came in.

“This car is closed for the night, sah. Is you the gen’leman from the stateroom in fourteen? Do you want a lower?”

“No, thank you. Is there a smoking car?”

“They is the day-coach smokah, but it ain’t likely very clean at this time o’ night.”

“That’s all right. It’s forward?” Claude absently handed him a coin, and the porter conducted him to a very dirty car where the floor was littered with newspapers and cigar stumps, and the leather cushions were grey with dust. A few desperate looking men lay about with their shoes off and their suspenders hanging down their backs. The sight of them reminded Claude that his left foot was very sore, and that his shoes must have been hurting him for some time. He pulled them off, and thrust his feet, in their silk socks, on the opposite seat.

On that long, dirty, uncomfortable ride Claude felt many things, but the paramount feeling was homesickness. His hurt was of a kind that made him turn with a sort of aching cowardice to the old, familiar things that were as sure as the sunrise. If only the sagebrush plain, over which the stars were shining, could suddenly break up and resolve itself into the windings of Lovely Creek, with his father’s house on the hill, dark and silent in the summer night! When he closed his eyes he could see the light in his mother’s window; and, lower down, the glow of Mahailey’s lamp, where she sat nodding and mending his old shirts. Human love was a wonderful thing, he told himself, and it was most wonderful where it had least to gain.

By morning the storm of anger, disappointment, and humiliation that was boiling in him when he first sat down in the observation car, had died out. One thing lingered; the peculiarly casual, indifferent, uninterested tone of his wife’s voice when she sent him away. It was the flat tone in which people make commonplace remarks about common things.

Day broke with silvery brightness on the summer sage. The sky grew pink, the sand grew gold. The dawn-wind brought through the windows the acrid smell of the sagebrush: an odour that is peculiarly stimulating in the early morning, when it always seems to promise freedom … large spaces. new beginnings, better days.

The train was due in Denver at eight o’clock. Exactly at seven thirty Claude knocked at Enid’s door,—this time firmly. She was dressed, and greeted him with a fresh, smiling face, holding her hat in her hand.

“Are you feeling better?” he asked.

“Oh, yes! I am perfectly all right this morning. I’ve put out all your things for you, there on the seat.”

He glanced at them. “Thank you. But I won’t have time to change, I’m afraid.”

“Oh, won’t you? I’m so sorry I forgot to give you your bag last night. But you must put on another necktie, at least. You look too much like a groom.”

“Do I?” he asked, with a scarcely perceptible curl of his lip.

Everything he needed was neatly arranged on the plush seat; shirt, collar, tie, brushes, even a handkerchief. Those in his pockets were black from dusting off the cinders that blew in all night, and he threw them down and took up the clean one. There was a damp spot on it, and as he unfolded it he recognized the scent of a cologne Enid often used. For some reason this attention unmanned him. He felt the smart of tears in his eyes, and to hide them bent over the metal basin and began to scrub his face. Enid stood behind him, adjusting her hat in the mirror.

“How terribly smoky you are, Claude. I hope you don’t smoke before breakfast?”

“No. I was in the smoking car awhile. I suppose my clothes got full of it.”

“You are covered with dust and cinders, too!” She took the clothes broom from the rack and began to brush him.

Claude caught her hand. “Don’t, please!” he said sharply. “The porter can do that for me.”

Enid watched him furtively as he closed and strapped his suitcase. She had often heard that men were cross before breakfast.

“Sure you’ve forgotten nothing?” he asked before he closed her bag.

“Yes. I never lose things on the train,—do you?”

“Sometimes,” he replied guardedly, not looking up as he snapped the catch.