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

Book One: On Lovely Creek


RALPH and his father came home to spend the holidays, and on Christmas day Bayliss drove out from town for dinner. He arrived early, and after greeting his mother in the kitchen, went up to the sitting-room, which shone with a holiday neatness, and, for once, was warm enough for Bayliss,—having a low circulation, he felt the cold acutely. He walked up and down, jingling the keys in his pockets and admiring his mother’s winter chrysanthemums, which were still blooming. Several times he paused before the old-fashioned secretary, looking through the glass doors at the volumes within. The sight of some of those books awoke disagreeable memories. When he was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, it used to make him bitterly jealous to hear his mother coaxing Claude to read aloud to her. Bayliss had never been bookish. Even before he could read, when his mother told him stories, he at once began to prove to her how they could not possibly be true. Later he found arithmetic and geography more interesting than “Robinson Crusoe.” If he sat down with a book, he wanted to feel that he was learning something. His mother and Claude were always talking over his head about the people in books and stories.

Though Bayliss had a sentimental feeling about coming home, he considered that he had had a lonely boyhood. At the country school he had not been happy; he was the boy who always got the answers to the test problems when the others didn’t, and he kept his arithmetic papers buttoned up in the inside pocket of his little jacket until he modestly handed them to the teacher, never giving a neighbour the benefit of his cleverness. Leonard Dawson and other lusty lads of his own age made life as terrifying for him as they could. In winter they used to throw him into a snow-drift, and then run away and leave him. In summer they made him eat live grasshoppers behind the schoolhouse, and put big bull-snakes in his dinner pail to surprise him. To this day, Bayliss liked to see one of those fellows get into difficulties that his big fists couldn’t get him out of.

It was because Bayliss was quick at figures and undersized for a farmer that his father sent him to town to learn the implement business. From the day he went to work, he managed to live on his small salary. He kept in his vest pocket a little day-book wherein he noted down all his expenditures,—like the millionaire about whom the Baptist preachers were never tired of talking,—and his offering to the contribution box stood out conspicuous in his weekly account.

In Bayliss’ voice, even when he used his insinuating drawl and said disagreeable things, there was something a little plaintive; the expression of a deep-seated sense of injury. He felt that he had always been misunderstood and underestimated. Later after he went into business for himself, the young men of Frankfort had never urged him to take part in their pleasures. He had not been asked to join the tennis club or the whist club. He envied Claude his fine physique and his unreckoning, impulsive vitality, as if they had been given to his brother by unfair means and should rightly have been his.

Bayliss and his father were talking together before dinner when Claude came in and was so inconsiderate as to put up a window, though he knew his brother hated a draft. In a moment Bayliss addressed him without looking at him:

“I see your friends, the Erlichs, have bought out the Jenkinson company, in Lincoln; at least, they’ve given their notes.”

Claude had promised his mother to keep his temper today, “Yes, I saw it in the paper. I hope they’ll succeed.”

“I doubt it.” Bayliss shook his head with his wisest look. “I understand they’ve put a mortgage on their home. That old woman will find herself without a roof one of these days.”

“I don’t think so. The boys have wanted to go into business together for a long while. They are all intelligent and industrious; why shouldn’t they get on?” Claude flattered himself that he spoke in an easy, confidential way.

Bayliss screwed up his eyes. “I expect they’re too fond of good living. They’ll pay their interest, and spend whatever’s left entertaining their friends. I didn’t see the young fellow’s name in the notice of incorporation,—Julius, do they call him?”

“Julius is going abroad to study this fall. He intends to be a professor.”

“What’s the matter with him? Does he have poor health?”

At this moment the dinner bell sounded, Ralph ran down from his room where he had been dressing, and they all descended to the kitchen to greet the turkey. The dinner progressed pleasantly. Bayliss and his father talked politics, and Ralph told stories about his neighbours in Yucca county. Bayliss was pleased that his mother had remembered he liked oyster stuffing, and he complimented her upon her mince pies. When he saw her pour a second cup of coffee for herself and for Claude at the end of dinner, he said, in a gentle, grieved tone, “I’m sorry to see you taking two, Mother.”

Mrs. Wheeler looked at him over the coffee-pot with a droll, guilty smile. “I don’t believe coffee hurts me a particle, Bayliss.”

“Of course it does; it’s a stimulant.” What worse could it be, his tone implied! When you said anything was a “stimulant,” you had sufficiently condemned it; there was no more noxious word.

Claude was in the upper hall, putting on his coat to go down to the barn and smoke a cigar, when Bayliss came out from the sitting-room and detained him by an indefinite remark.

“I believe there’s to be a musical show in Hastings Saturday night.”

Claude said he had heard something of the sort.

“I was thinking,” Bayliss affected a careless tone, as if he thought of such things every day, “that we might make a party and take Gladys and Enid. The roads are pretty good.”

“It’s a hard drive home, so late at night,” Claude objected. Bayliss meant, of course, that Claude should drive the party up and back in Mr. Wheeler’s big car. Bayliss never used his glistening Cadillac for long, rough drives.

“I guess Mother would put us up overnight, and we needn’t take the girls home till Sunday morning. I’ll get the tickets.”

“You’d better arrange it with the girls, then. I’ll drive you, of course, if you want to go.”

Claude escaped and went out, wishing that Bayliss would do his own courting and not drag him into it. Bayliss, who didn’t know one tune from another, certainly didn’t want to go to this concert, and it was doubtful whether Enid Royce would care much about going. Gladys Farmer was the best musician in Frankfort, and she would probably like to hear it.

Claude and Gladys were old friends, from their High School days, though they hadn’t seen much of each other while he was going to college. Several times this fall Bayliss had asked Claude to go somewhere with him on a Sunday, and then stopped to “pick Gladys up,” as he said. Claude didn’t like it. He was disgusted, anyhow, when he saw that Bayliss had made up his mind to marry Gladys. She and her mother were so poor that he would probably succeed in the end, though so far Gladys didn’t seem to give him much encouragement. Marrying Bayliss, he thought, would be no joke for any woman, but Gladys was the one girl in town whom he particularly ought not to marry. She was as extravagant as she was poor. Though she taught in the Frankfort High School for twelve hundred a year, she had prettier clothes than any of the other girls, except Enid Royce, whose father was a rich man. Her new hats and suède shoes were discussed and criticized year in and year out. People said if she married Bayliss Wheeler, he would soon bring her down to hard facts. Some hoped she would, and some hoped she wouldn’t. As for Claude, he had kept away from Mrs. Farmer’s cheerful parlour ever since Bayliss had begun to drop in there. He was disappointed in Gladys. When he was offended, he seldom stopped to reason about his state of feeling. He avoided the person and the thought of the person, as if it were a sore spot in his mind.