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

Book Three: Sunrise on the Prairie


THE AFTERNOON sun was pouring in at the back windows of Mrs. Farmer’s long, uneven parlour, making the dusky room look like a cavern with a fire at one end of it. The furniture was all in its cool, figured summer cretonnes. The glass flower vases that stood about on little tables caught the sunlight and twinkled like tiny lamps. Claude had been sitting there for a long while, and he knew he ought to go. Through the window at his elbow he could see rows of double hollyhocks, the flat leaves of the sprawling catalpa, and the spires of the tangled mint bed, all transparent in the gold-powdered light. They had talked about everything but the thing he had come to say. As he looked out into the garden he felt that he would never get it out. There was something in the way the mint bed burned and floated that made one a fatalist,—afraid to meddle. But after he was far away, he would regret; uncertainty would tease him like a splinter in his thumb.

He rose suddenly and said without apology: “Gladys, I wish I could feel sure you’d never marry my brother.”

She did not reply, but sat in her easy chair, looking up at him with a strange kind of calmness.

“I know all the advantages,” he went on hastily, “but they wouldn’t make it up to you. That sort of a—compromise would make you awfully unhappy. I know.”

“I don’t think I shall ever marry Bayliss,” Gladys spoke in her usual low, round voice, but her quick breathing showed he had touched something that hurt. “I suppose I have used him. It gives a school-teacher a certain prestige if people think she can marry the rich bachelor of the town whenever she wants to. But I am afraid I won’t marry him,—because you are the member of the family I have always admired.”

Claude turned away to the window. “A fine lot I’ve been to admire,” he muttered.

“Well, it’s true, anyway. It was like that when we went to High School, and it’s kept up. Everything you do always seems exciting to me.”

Claude felt a cold perspiration on his forehead. He wished now that he had never come. “But that’s it, Gladys. What have I ever done, except make one blunder after another?”

She came over to the window and stood beside him. “I don’t know; perhaps it’s by their blunders that one gets to know people,—by what they can’t do. If you’d been like all the rest, you could have got on in their way. That was the one thing I couldn’t have stood.”

Claude was frowning out into the flaming garden. He had not heard a word of her reply. “Why didn’t you keep me from making a fool of myself?” he asked in a low voice.

“I think I tried—once. Anyhow, it’s all turning out better than I thought. You didn’t get stuck here. You’ve found your place. You’re sailing away. You’ve just begun.”

“And what about you?”

She laughed softly. “Oh, I shall teach in the High School!”

Claude took her hands and they stood looking searchingly at each other in the swimming golden light that made everything transparent. He never knew exactly how he found his hat and made his way out of the house. He was only sure that Gladys did not accompany him to the door. He glanced back once, and saw her head against the bright window.

She stood there, exactly where he left her, and watched the evening come on, not moving, scarcely breathing. She was thinking how often, when she came downstairs, she would see him standing here by the window, or moving about in the dusky room, looking at last as he ought to look,—like his convictions and the choice he had made. She would never let this house be sold for taxes now. She would save her salary and pay them off. She could never like any other room so well as this. It had always been a refuge from Frankfort; and now there would be this vivid, confident figure, an image as distinct to her as the portrait of her grandfather upon the wall.