A Son of Eli
Being further Adventures of Youth at Blind-Man’s-Buff with Life’s Inscrutabilities
W. G. HARDY
The story so far; Paul Honey, bred on an Ontario farm, returns on vacation from university to find his father engaged in a grim struggle for possessions with Richard Noice, a neighbor whose method of combating those obnoxious to him is the ancient Puritan one of “churching” — attacking them in open meeting. Paul’s father has just outreached the old man in a deal for a farm.
It is wartime, 1915, and Paul wishes to enlist, but his father disapproves.
Paul has met in the nearby town Eileen Ainsley, a girl at collegiate, and his head is full of her when he returns. He also encounters Richard Noice’s downtrodden daughter, Nettie, and is swept off his feet by her helplessness. The old man comes upon the two of them kissing, and flies into a Biblical fury. A scene follows in which Noice carries out his threat of “churching” Paul’s father, but his plans are frustrated by the production of Mr. Honey’s correspondence, and the old man goes off fuming.
That night Noice marries Nettie to Squint-eyed Pete, a brutal neighbor. Paul in the meantime visits Eileen, unaware, till he returns, of the old man’s action. All the vacation he works on the farm, his thoughts divided between Nettie, Eileen and enlistment—unfledged and unsatisfied.
In the fall he returns to Toronto, and the arguments and aspirations of university life.
FROM the window of her coach Eileen watched the landscape hurtle toward her—at least the nearer landscape did, while the trees and houses and whatnot farther back seemed to spin along with her, to move directly opposite to the telegraph poles near at hand. Beautiful the country was today, splashed with fall sunshine, gorgeous in its trees, each of them with its gaudy coat around her, wrapped up in herself, scornful of her neighbors.
Eileen felt a little scornful herself. The others in the coach weren’t going, like her, to a college reception. She wondered excitedly what it would be like, this reception, whether it would be at all similar to the collegiate proms. At any rate, she reflected, in half an hour or so she would be in Toronto, and on her way to Alice Long’s home.
“Would Paul meet her, too?” she wondered. She thought a little about Paul, still looking out of the coach window at the shacks that started to dot the country as they neared the city, at the line of blue on the horizon made by the waters of Lake Ontario. Paul was rather nice, she reflected, in spite of what Etta said. Besides, folks said he was clever. Strange, she decided, that he should be so awkward, so embarrassed when people came in. Especially after being at college. The other boys whom she knew weren’t like that. Booth Fraser, for instance.
Yet Paul, she had gathered, wanted her to stop going out with anyone else, was always hinting at an “agreement.” Surely, she told herself, he understood that she liked him a lot. But, as Anna said, there was no sense in getting tied up yet. Too many things could happen. If he’d only be content.
The train was swinging into the gloomy purlieus of the old Union Station now, the air thick with dust and smells, the clanging of the bell reverberating against the roof. Hastily she got her things together, fixed herself up, and took a hurried glance in her mirror.
“Will he think I look nice?” she asked herself.
THE great hall of Victoria College was a tangle of people, laughing, talking, fighting their way from group to group. Eileen, standing there, waiting for Paul to bring Alec Shore and his girl up—Alec, like Paul, was bringing an outsider—felt a little bewildered by it all, and a little isolated. It had been somewhat frightening, this coming to a strange building and taking off her wraps among a swarm of strange girls, all of whom seemed to know each other so well. Disturbing, too, to move out into this crowd, and to stand here alone. With a sense of relief, she saw Paul coming toward her.
“Here’s Mr. Shore,” he said, presenting him. Eileen gazed at him with interest. He didn’t look so formidable, this rotund little person. She began to feel reassured.
“Miss Hillyard,” Alec Shore was saying. “Miss Ainsley,” and Eileen turned to the girl with them. She was a quiet little person, Miss Hillyard was, and as isolated in this milieu, Eileen sensed, as herself.
“You a stranger, too?” she asked, and as Paul and Alec left them to ferret out partners for them—partners arranged for, days ago—the two girls drew together, eager to form an alliance and to present a united front to this new experience. As they chatted, and as man after man was marched triumphantly up to them to put his name on their programmes, their feeling of strangeness passed. This was enjoyable; this was exciting. They were swimmers who had recovered from the first shock of the plunge.
The business of getting partners was over. At the other end of the hall an orchestra began. The crowd started to drift in a steady stream toward the great stairs. Up with the crowd Eileen and Paul went, up to the first landing on which the patronesses stood, permanent smiles on their faces, and a limp hand for each newcomer.
“Paradise Row,” Paul whispered, and they were past them and moving into the chapel, crowded now with people sitting there waiting for the programme to begin. There was a din of chatter in the air, like that of a multitude of birds.
A professor, gorgeous in his expanse of white shirt front, came forward, and the noise stopped as abruptly as if someone had touched a button. The programme had begun.
Of its constituent parts Eileen remembered comparatively little. It made only a confused impression on her. Smart things said, laughter from everyone, she laughing with them, a pause as a soloist cameforward, an undertone of conversation during a dull and lengthy speech, and then a rustle of movement as the last number was finished and the audience prepared to rise.
“You have this prom with Alec,” Paul whispered as they filed out into the hall. The sound of music came up from the floor below. Paul took possession of Miss Hillyard, and Eileen and Alec moved off together. The promenading had begun, boys and girls walking slowly side by side around the upper and lower halls, talking about the pictures, about the decorations, about the programmes, about fiftyand-one trivial things. Came the break in the music, and the promenaders broke, too, the women forming into little groups at the various rendezvous, the men dashing madly here and there, an eager questing look on their faces, searching desperately to find their next partner before the music began again.
Eileen enjoyed it all, enjoyed the air of excitement, enj oyed the different men who moved with her around the halls, enjoyed the trivialities of conversation, repeated with each one.
Paul was at her side again. “Time for the eats,” he said, and marched her off to a cosy corner in which Shore and Miss Hillyard were already installed. Leaving them there, the men went off to join in the mad scramble for food, re-emerging at length, with a plate in either hand, coming toward them as triumphantly as if they had conquered a city.
“Paul looked fine up here,” Eileen decided, watching him. He seemed less shy to her, much more sure of himself. He was settling himself now in the cushions with Alec, laughing and joking, full of high spirits.
“If he could only act like that at home,” she went on thinking to herself. “That would show Etta.”
The eats were over, and the promenades began again. They weren’t so terribly different from those at collegiate, Eileen determined, as she walked about with Paul in the last of them. Bigger.
More interesting, too.
But not so different.
Just as she made up her mind to this, the music stopped. Paul marshalled her over to join Miss Hillyard.
“Can we leave you?” he asked. “We’ve got to yell.”
Eileen murmured assent, feeling a little out of things again, as she watched the crowd in the great hall forming into groups. There was a look of excitement and of exaltation on the faces of them all, as if they were about to participate in some rite from which she and the outsiders like her, standing there in a cluster in the centre of the hall, were to be excluded. The groups were ready now, scattered in compact bands about the halls, one mass, Paul among them, gathered on the great stairs, tier on tier of eager excited faces. An expectant pause— and the yells broke out, class after class, faculty after faculty, following hard on each other’s heel, each striving to outdo the other. The place rang with them. Another pause, and then with a mighty roar the Varsity yell crashed out. It died away, and Eileen stood there, as the band started to play “God save the King,” feeling strangely insignificant. She looked at Paul as he joined her again, a subdued yet exultant air about him, as of one who has shared in some satisfying worship, wanting to express something of her thought to him, but not finding the words.
“Well, that’s over,” he said inadequately.
“Guess we’ll get our things,” Eileen said just as inadequately, and went off to the dressing room with Miss Hillyard, still under the influence of that last scene, feeling that here she had found something beyond her experience. She came out of the dressing room, still under the spell, and stopped appalled. From the door across the hall to the great entrance stretched a lane of men, jostling a little, but keeping in two lines, every eye fixed on her.
“What were they here for?” she wondered, and felt a little panic for an instant. “Where could Paul be?” Then, with a little lift of her chin she started to walk blindly down between the lines, eyes straight ahead, horribly self-conscious. Halfway down, a figure detached itself and stepped to her side.
“Quite a line-up, isn’t it?” Paul asked.
“Whish she, Paul,” someone sneezed at them, and she found relief in nervous laughter.
“I should say it is,” she answered.
At the door of Alice Long’s house she turned to Paul. “It was glorious,” she said, still subdued by it. “Just wonderful, Paul.”
Paul grasped at the opportunity. Eileen, he realized, had been impressed.
“Eileen,” he said eagerly, “I’ve been wondering—we do like each other don’t we?”
“Ye—es.” Eileen was a little frightened. Was he going to try to kiss her? What should she do? With Booth or Stuart and the rest it was different. Easy to laugh it off. But with Paul ...
But Paul was not thinking of this. He went on headlong, “I was wondering—could we be special friends?”
“Why—” an instinct of caution made her dissemble— “we are now, aren’t we?”
“Are we?” Paul was all aglow, taking from those words a promise of everything. “Are we?” He took a step toward her.
“Let’s—let’s shake on that,” Eileen said quickly.
They shook hands solemnly. “Good night, Paul.”
“Good night—See you in the morning.”
She went in, and Paul walked home feeling that he should be exultant but feeling, too, that something was lacking. Should he, he wondered, have kissed her? Had she expected him to kiss her? Yet, he told himself at length, it was all right. She was his girl. She had said so. Bringing her up to the prom-—that had done it. He was in high spirits as he opened the door, and stepped into the gloomy hall of 213 Isabella.
/CHRISTMAS time and home! The students poured into the trains that were to carry them east, west, north and south, shouting glad nothings at each other as they embarked, waving tumultuously, full of high spirits, boys and girls on holiday. Down they settled in little knots in the crowded coaches, to sing and to shout Varsity yells, ogling pretty girls, guying the more adventurous of their number who made overtures to girls they knew, or thought they knew, drunk with hilarity.
Paul joined in it all, working desperately to manufacture this air of spontaneity and high spirits, and trying to keep up with the best of them. But it was hard work. In himself he felt that he was making a fool of himself, knew that this type of fun-making was not for him. He was too impregnated by his country upbringing for this kind of thoughtless buffoonery.
“Tomfoolery!” He could almost hear his father say it. Just what he had said about enlisting. Paul drew into himself to think about this problem. He had pondered it many a time this fall, had had it constantly before him. There were so many uniforms around, and so many enlisting whom he knew. He wanted to be one of them, to taste the tang of adventure, to be admired, flattered, to see girls’ eyes follow him. Eileen, too; that would, he told himself, be the finishing touch with her. But there was his promise in the way—and his father. He had to make good for his sake, had to put off enlisting. He heaved a sigh, came to his old decision. He’d finish out this year anyway.
The train panted on through the whirling snow and the darkness. The students were quiet now. Swaying there in the aisle •—Christmas trains on the Grand Trunk branch lines were always packed; sniffling, sneezing humanity wedged in, crowding each other like horses on a slippery road — Paul watched the dim lights of the lamps flicker as the coach careened, looked at the faces of the folks about, speculating on who they were, what they did, how they lived. A fascinating game, and still more fascinating to imagine that he, a person no one noticed as a rule, was some famous hero travelling with them incognito. A girl a seat ahead drew his attention. Such a knowing hat she had on, and the curve of her cheek was full and soft. She had looked round once, and Paul’s eyes had caught hers. Paul would have liked to have spoken to her, but dared not. He didn’t know what to say, anyway, but he began to feel again that, as Gunn said, all this business of there only being one girl in the world for you was bunk.
There were so many to whom you were attracted. Camilla, for instance. He had seen her on the street the other day, charming with her rosy cheeks and sidelong eyes, and had been stirred again by her. She had wondered why he didn’t go to see her, too. Bill Porteous’ argument came to him. “If you’ve got a girl, stick to her.” His country training made him, in spite of himself, approve of that. He’d better, he told himself, make that agreement with Eileen more definite this Christmas and tie himself with a stronger bond. Then he wouldn’t be so attracted by a pretty face, wouldn’t have those sudden speculative thoughts as to other girls. He wrenched his thoughts away and tried to reflect about Eileen. How lovely she had looked at that reception, he reminded himself—so removed from passion. How she had enjoyed it and been impressed by it. He wished, he told himself, that he had had the nerve to kiss her, there at Alice Long’s doorstep.
Kiss! The word, unexpectedly and for no apparent reason, brought a picture of Nettie before him with astounding clearness. Would he never get free of her? He had not thought of her often this fall. At college, somehow, she and old Richard Noice and Squint-eyed Pete seemed far off, unreal, like shadows in a dream. But now, he stirred uneasily, funny how Nettie came so vividly before him. Probably, he reminded himself, defensively, she was getting along all right, content with the inevitable, and forgetting him. But he couldn’t throw off the thought of her. Would he, he wondered, hear anything about her at home this Christmas?
The train was slowing for a station. “Come on, Paul,” one of the fellows shouted in his ear. “Let’s give them a yell.”
Paul jumped at the chance. Off they trooped, all of them, to shout their yell, astounding, they fondly hoped, the sleepy villagers standing there on the platform in the snow, watching them placidly, an atmosphere of quiet stagnation surrounding them.
rT'HE two weeks or so at home were a joy. It was so relaxing to get into the quiet of the farm once more, so flattering to feel oneself the centre of so much attention. You would have thought that he was the returned prodigal. Everyone had been waiting when Bruce got him home after the slow ride from the station—a ride that had been full of talk of Paul’s doings, with occasional bits of news from home. Mother had supper, late though it was, on the table for him. Awfully good it tasted to Paul, eating it by snatches, interrupting his eating to bubble over with some detail of what had happened at college, everyone hanging on his words eager to hear, everyone happy and jolly.
Great, too, to get up late next morning and find breakfast ready, and to have a chat with mother in the dining room, the while one wandered about the place noticing a few changes. “Why, that’s a new picture, isn’t it, mother?” Glances out of the window, as well, at the farm all blanketed with snow, at the trees of the fence rows naked now, and whipped by the December wind. Great to tell under mother’s questioning about your successes and your hopes; to tell, too, shyly about Eileen and the reception. After that, on went Paul’s old rubber boots, and out he dashed to the barn through the nipping cold, to jump inside the stable door and pause a moment to get accustomed to the light.
Grateful the heat was in the stable, a warmth somehow different from the house heat, made not by stoves, but by the crowded bodies of the animals—horses, cattle, pigs, all under one roof—freighted, too, with a dozen odors. Paul sniffed the air hungrily. He liked this—he had spent so many winters doing chores here. These smells meant warmth and comfort to him, came to him loaded with recollection. He pressed on through the horse-stable to the long passageway in front of the cattle. On the other side of him was the roothouse, jammed full of mangolds and turnips. There he found his father at work carrying out great tubfuls of roots to the cows. He started to help him, talking the while. It was great to be home.
The holidays went by too quickly. Part of them Paul spent at chores, at the old homely tasks of feeding stock and cleaning stables; part in cutting wood two miles away in Ackhurst’s bush. This was a Christmastime job and one Paul enjoyed. Each morning his father and he would drive to the bush, and after stabling their horse in the deserted old log barn, which was the sole surviving relic of Ackhurst’s attempt to carve out a home in pioneer days, would go down the hill into the swamp. There, knee-deep in the snow, they would fall to chopping down the trees, to brushing them, and cutting them into cordwood lengths. In the silence of their little world their axes rang loud. Around them was the smell of birch and basswood, of cedar and hemlock. Overhead a chickadee would call, or a jay screech in protest. It put you, Paul felt, close to the real business of living. There was something of the pioneer about it.
When noon came, Paul would stroll up from the shelter of the bush to feed the horse, while his father got a fire built and thawed out the outer half of the potato pie they had for their lunch. These meals tasted good, as they lounged in a heap of evergreen tops, toasting their toes at the fire, while their backs shivered, and they crunched the mouthfuls of half-frozen pastry. Then back to chopping again.
He made a visit to Eileen’s home, too. This was a jolly affair, a skating party, a group out tobogganing, and the two of them going to everything together. But there were too many people about for Paul to see Eileen alone, and he came home somewhat dissatisfied. There had been no opportunity to talk about the agreement he had meditated, and it had been disturbing to discover that, when away from his college background, Eileen appeared to be more inaccessible and not so impressed by him. It was still more disturbing to find her treating Frank and Stuart and Booth just as freely as she had before. What did she understand that agreement they had made after the reception at Vic to mean? he asked himself. He had tried to make an opportunity to find out, but unexpectedly that old awkwardness of his had overwhelmed him again. Paul couldn’t imagine why. He had hoped that he was done with that.
“He’s better,” Madge had said to Eileen after his visit, “but he’s got a lot to learn yet, your country friend.”
Still it had been quite a satisfactory holiday. He had been so occupied that he had had little time to think about Nettie, and he had heard nothing about her. Nor was he eager to. There was too much pain connected with his memories of her. Let sleeping dogs lie.
New Year’s day came, and he piled into the long sleigh with the rest of the family to drive over to Grandad’s place. It was a typical winter’s day, the sun blinking with a watery eye in a cold sky, snow puffing out above the great drifts that stretched out their fingers from the snake fences toward the track.
Going up Noice’s hill he saw the old man outside chopping ice out of his water trough for his cattle to get a drink, little icicles, Paul noted, on his mustache and beard, cap down over his ears.
“He never made up, did he?” he asked Jean in a low voice.
“No. And didn’t come back to church here, either. Goes to Zion now. He’s bitter, old Noice is. If he ever got a chance at dad ...”
Paul did not have much to say for the rest of the drive. It was curious, he thought, how the sight of the old fellow moved him; how it kept pushing before him what had happened to Nettie. He tried to throw off the feeling. It was foolishness—with her married and comfortable, most likely.
But at Grandad’s, after the gorge of the New Year’s dinner as they all sat around digesting it, he heard Fred Dickens talking to his grandfather. He’d been hearing about Nettie Noice that used to be, he said, and it was a shame, a crying shame the way Jamieson treated her.
“How’s that, Fred?” his grandfather asked.
“Ever since they were married,” Fred went on. “You know they went in to live with the old folks, and Pete was the only son. I guess the old folks were jealous of Nettie, or else just mean. There’s nobody as mean as the black Scotch when they want to be. Anyway they kept nagging at her. Nothing she did was right. If she’d cook, the old woman would take a bite, then sniff, and get up and throw it out; and if she’d clean up, she’d come around after her, going over it all again. And the old man would make sly jokes at her, dirty jokes about her. Jibe at her hair, too. It made me boil at threshing time. If I’d been Pete! But he never said a word. Just sat there. And never has neither. Guess he’s scared of the old folks. Or else he doesn’t care. Anyway, after a bit they started grumbling more, and finally, they told her they’d give her two rooms upstairs. Got an old heater in for her, and there she lives, never going nowhere, never seeing nobody. Not even Pete. H eats down with the old folks, they say, and sits there in the evening. I saw Nettie the other day, when I was over to borrow a shovel for Ed. She was down for water. I never saw such a change, stoopshouldered and thin, and the most awful look on her face—vacant, listless. You know what I mean—as if there wasn’t a single, solitary thing to live for. Made me think of a puppy I found once just starved to death and past all caring.”
Paul sat by, almost stunned, his apathy overthrown. Here he had been imagining Nettie content, satisfied, getting along all right, saying to himself that she probably wasn’t sensitive enough to suffer. As clearly as if it had been a moment before, the memory of the feel of her in his arms came back to him, he had a quick vision of her face, lips parted, as it had been shown in the moonlight. Then came another picture of her, bruised, wounded to death, looking out hopelessly on life in the dead calm of utter misery. Why couldn’t he rescue her, go down there and batter Squint-eyed Pete to a bloody pulp, take her away. She was married to him, and marriage was sacred. Was it? How could it be? With brutes like that? Made in heaven was it? This one must have been concerted in hell, and the devil must have chuckled when he saw Nettie in Pete Jamieson’s hands. The church gave its blessing even to such a marriage. Noice, stifling his child like that, still stood up, he supposed, in fellowship meeting, and talked about his faith in the Lord. The church didn’t kick him out, didn’t say to him “Thou hypocrite!” No, the church bowed low and took his money. Took Jamieson’s money, too. What was the church, anyway? Just a business institution, kowtowing, he said to himself, to the rich and powerful, with little room for the beggar and the outcast. Pharisees !... And if Christ came again . . .
He raged on, hands trembling, not hearing Fred and grandfather talk, frantic at his helplessness. For he knew he wouldn’t do anything. He hadn’t the nerve to break every taboo of the countryside, and to go down and rescue Nettie. Suppose he did carry her off, where could he take her? What could he give her to live on, himself going to college on borrowed money? What would his father think, or his mother?
All excuses, he said to himself bitterly.
He felt that he simply didn’t have the courage. He couldn’t defy convention, couldn’t jump out, do what ought to be done. No, he wouldn’t do anything, but he hated himself for realizing it.
He went back to Varsity depressed, the picture called up by Fred’s words often in his mind, stopping in his work to picture her there in her dreary home.
TN MIDWINTER Paul stared at a 4 letter from his sister.
“You remember Nettie Noice. She died last week. Nobody knows just what was the matter with her. Fred asked the doctor, and he said he didn’t know. Nothing wrong with her. But she just didn’t seem to want to live.”
So it was finished! Paul couldn’t imagine it. That lovely face, thin and marred, those eyes closing in utter weariness. Why did God let folks come into the world, he wondered, if just to suffer like that, and not for sins of their own? Innocent they were, and caught and bruised so wantonly and cruelly.
No chance for her to protect herself, to escape. That old man her father first; then Pete Jamieson, gloating over her, finding pleasure in tormenting her.
What justice was there in it? Could God be just? Was there any God? Not while Noice and Jamieson lived and prospered and went on unpunished. He felt that he would never care for God again, would fling defiance at Him.
The discussion group that Sunday were surprised at his cold bitterness.
“He’s growing up,” Gunn said aside to Bentley. “I didn’t think he had it in him. But he’s growing up; you can watch that chap.”
Where was the truth? Paul asked himself a few days later as he sat at his table, a book open before him, the gaslight a bright flare above him. So many sects and so many religions which claimed to possess the only means to salvation, claimed, too, that only their followers were the elect.
He pushed his book away. He’d think through, he told himself, this business of religion. At home he had never questioned it. It had been part of the normal background. One of his earliest recollections was that of sitting with dangling legs on a hard bench while a man in a pulpit raved on interminably about incomprehensible things; and another—he grinned as he recalled it—of standing one June day, a bare-footed little boy, in the sun-scorched litter of the barnyard, and asking God to move McWhirter’s Hill down on top of the church. “Faith,” William Arthur had said, “can move mountains.” How disconsolate he had been when nothing had happened.
But for the most part, religion had been for him something that was dragged out of the closet on Sunday along with your best clothes, and packed away with them again when the day was over. There had been exceptions, of course. The night, for instance, when a fierce thunderstorm had crashed and roared over the house, and he, a boy of twelve, had grovelled under the bedclothes with a conviction of “sin” and had promised in fear and trembling to repent.
For the most part, he told himself, religion had been only actively unpleasant when there were revival meetings, and folks went wild, and everyone wept and ranted, and insisted on asking you about your soul; or when the minister in fellowship meeting asked all those who belonged to the Lord to stand up, and you stood up with the rest. Unpleasant, but part and parcel of a respectable life.
It wasn’t, Paul saw now, until his experience with Nettie that the scales had begun to drop from his eyes, and that he had begun to see that in the name of religion people could be cruel and intolerant, that religion wrongly applied could be an active force to hurt and to hinder. What, he asked himself again, would an early Christian think of what was called Christianity today?
Thenthe confusion of claims. It seemed to be much the same with all creeds. Buddhists of today confident that their way was the right way; Mahommedans crying, “Thus shalt thou do to be saved,” and spreading as fast or faster than Christianity; Christianity itself split into diverse sects, which too often thought that all the rest were wrong and that they themselves had the only true religion.
He couldn’t decide. A good influence or a bad? Noble deeds and fierce cruelties done in the name of the selfsame God. He couldn’t decide. There were his own people—religion hadn’t spoiled them—and there was old man Noice . . . Perhaps, he reflected, it depended on each individual person. But at least, he told himself, as he pulled his book toward him, no one was going to dictate his religion to him hereafter—he would find a faith for himself.
He started on his work.
rT'HE winter passed by swiftly. There was hockey.
4Paul had made the college team this year, and enjoyed the flash and shock of the game. There were letters from Eileen, and his letters to her, carefully spaced, one every two weeks; and there were arguments in the club, and studying, and student frolics. It all made life interesting. Since his decision about religion, too, Paul was more at peace. He still read books on early Christianity, flung himself fiercely into any discussions that happened to arise. He went around, also, on Sundays to the different churches with Gunn and Bentley and Alec Shore to listen to different speakers and to criticize what they said. But it was only as a matter of general interest. His determination, he felt, was reached. Let the other fellow have his ideas, and don’t bother him unless he bothers you.
He did go, however, once more to see Camilla and took her to another show. He went into the house afterwards, as on the other evening. Once again he sensed that peculiar silence, and seemed to feel her presence enveloping him.
Just what did it mean? he wondered. Suppose . . . And overcome by his imaginings, flushed and .embarrassed, he took his hat and left.
He felt half ashamed of himself when he was out in the street again. “Why didn’t I have the nerve,” he asked himself, “to stay and see what happened?”
But here, he realized, was a taboo he could not break. Theoretically, yes. But faced by the actual fact, all his training, all his sense of ignorance came upon him overwhelmingly. Besides, he reminded himself, there was Eileen—that agreement of theirs. He must keep her more in mind. He did not go to see Camilla again. His life, in spite of worries as to whether he should enlist, had reached a satisfying routine.
It was in March that he heard a speaker who added something more to his conception of religion. Alec and he had gone this Sunday morning to Convocation Hall, the first hint of spring about them as they walked toward the place, and had sat down in one of the galleries that look into the great circular dome. The organ was pealing, resounding through the place, the morning light came in through the high cupola, subdued, softened. There was something very humbling about it all, something that tore down the wall of your conceit, and seemed to leave you face to face with your own naked self. In the grip of this mood Paul looked across the great vault and caught sight of a face in an opposing gallery that appealed to him. He stared at it. He could, he felt, have been great friends with the owner of that face. Strange to have that feeling and to know that the two of them would never meet . . .
As he pondered, the service started and took him out of himself. He was caught by the Greek clarity of it; and then the speaker, a little man with a straggling brown beard, came to the front of the dais. His first sentence gripped Paul, and he leaned forward to listen. No cant here, no insistence on dogma, no vituperation. Instead, a quiet, scholarly statement of certain things which seemed to the speaker to be truths. No rabid partisanship either, but an attempt to see both sides of the case, to reduce the evidence as nearly as might be to broad principles of conduct. He had no desire, the speaker pointed out, to take one truth like honesty or love or chastity, and to set it up so as to obscure the others. If you did that, he went on, your truth became a perversion, became a Frankenstein which tried to crush all other truths also its priest. Christianity—strangely twisted, perhaps, from the purpose of its Founder but yet, as first taught, expressing the great truths of human experience. Miracles didn’t matter. It was this life that mattered and the way you lived it . . .
Paul got up when the service was over, strongly influenced. Here was a new idea for him. Religion, he told himself, did not need to be all creed and dogma, need not be intolerant.
Something of this he tried to express that same evening, when he dropped in to visit his landlady of the year before, and found a minister there.
The minister asked a few questions.
“I’m afraid,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “that you have lost your faith.”
“I never had any,” Paul blurted out. “Besides,” with a blind desire to carry the war into Africa, “I always could see a lot of contradictions in the Bible—and the church never explained them.”
“The Church and the Bible,” said the minister, “have stood for thousands of years against multitudes of foolish attacks like yours. The Word of God and the Church are eternal. They are based on the ultimate verities. You seem to think you are clever. Yet you are nothing in the sight of God.” He stopped his lecture, looked at Paul penetratingly. “I see,” he commented dryly, “that you haven’t enlisted yet.”
Paul blushed resentfully. The two girls, he realized, were regarding him with that odd, almost hostile, look he had come to expect in girls’ eyes when enlisting was talked about. He felt bitterly antagonistic toward that minister. As if enlisting had anything to do with their argument. But there was nothing to be said. He got up, mumbled that he must be going, and found his embarrassed way to the street.
On his way home, still affected by that embarrassment of his, he considered again the question of enlisting. The college year would soon be over. He had decided at Christmas that that promise of his could surely only be good until the end of the term. He would have to make up his mind. What should he do? So many fellows had gone. So many were planning to enlist as soon as exams were over.
Ought he to join them? He wanted to be with the crowd, to do the normal thing. Eileen, he thought once more, would be enthralled at seeing him in uniform. That would give him his chance. He would get things fixed then.
Funny how uniforms drew girls’ eyes after a man, Paul told himself. A sort of romantic, yet maternal, look on their faces, almost as if they visualized themselves as comforters, as givers of strength to little boys so terribly in earnest. He threw off the fancy and turned back to his problem. Supposing he did enlist? There would be death as a possibility. He pushed that to one side. One didn’t have to think about that yet. But there would be military drill, saluting, kowtowing to officers, all that stuff. Paul didn’t think that he would like that. He had seen enough of soldiers to realize vaguely that a private didn’t cut much ice. He was ordered around, bawled out, throttled by a rigid code. Like those poor devils he had seen sloshing along on a route, march the other day, in baggy, illfitting ■ uniforms, while their nattily dressed officers had stepped along lightly and snapped commands at them. No, he wouldn’t like that. He’d like to be an officer. But he hadn’t any pull. There was the O.T.C. of the University, though, he remembered. You could join that as a private, and train for a commission in the Imperials. That would solve that point.
Reluctantly he began to consider the greatest obstacle—his father. He was so set against it, and he could be so stern.
He’d better go home first and talk to him about it, he decided.
He was useless here, anyway, he told himself as he turned up Isabella Street. The coming of spring always made him restless, and made him tired of the city. He might as well go home. Two weeks *later he used a few days grace before exams to take the train to Eldad.
TT RESTORED him, the farm did, just
as it had done last year. There was something about the country, the snow still in the fence corners; the trees starting to run with sap; the first crows cawing desolately over in McAdoo’s woods; a certain softness and tang in the air contrasting with the bleak prospect of a land ravaged by winter and not yet ready for donning her new clothes. It laid hold of Paul, made him sense the great mystery of the earth, ever-dying and ever-reviving itself, while generations of mortals passed and repassed. It seemed to cure that ache in his consciousness, which had been there since Nettie’s tragedy, this sense of the littleness of humanity, of the long, slow, everrecurring processes of nature. What did the sufferings, the tragedy of one individual matter, after all? Little struggles of a drowning man flung into the sea, keen to himself but nothing to the ocean that rolls on as before. Why struggle, why faint, why worry about vengeance or justice?
And so peace began to fall on him, his bitterness about Nettie to pass away. He would, he sensed, always be affected by the thought of her, always feel moments of tearing regret at the thought of what might have been. The remembrance of her would always remain with him and color his life. But he must, he realized, come to accept the inevitable.
Nice to see his folks again, too. Chats with his mother between sessions in the front room at his books, odd hours snatched with his father, who was out sawing wood for the summer, the bright band flashing in the sun, tearing at the odorous cedar, the sawdust underfoot. Or at night, down with the lantern to the barn to do the chores, pushing straw down out of the mow, carrying basketfuls of decaying turnips to the cattle, bedding down the horses. So close to the real business of living, this seemed, all of it, stripping off the artificialities of city life.
There was no suggestion here, either, that war was on in Europe, and that Canadians were involved. No hint of it at home, save that Paul’s father treated him with exceptional kindness, and kept reminding him that he would be needed on the farm next summer. Nor was there any feeling among the country folk that the war was at their doors, that it affected them any more than before. Paul saw this when he went to church the first Sunday he was home. After the service he sidled out to join the group of young men standing on the platform, watching the folk drive off, uttering slow-voiced comment.
“Looks like the war is getting worse,” Paul remarked to Percy Warren.
“Yeh, it do,” Percy agreed, but without more than a trace of interest. “Prices ought to keep up, I guess.”
“Lots of fellows enlisting in the city,” Paul ventured.
The remark fell on silence. No one commented on it. It was their way, Paul knew, of pointing out that a subject did not interest them. After a decent interval Alf Roberts said:
“Did you hear about Jo Thomas the other day?”
“No,” said Warren, “What was it, Alf?”
“You know how Jo’s sheep have been worrying him—them early lambs of his. Seems like he can’t make up his mind to sell ’em or not. Well, yestiddy, Jim Trout and me was ridin’ in ter town when we meets Jo. We stopped a sec, and Jo got talking about his lambs, and bimeby Jim says ter me:
“You’ve got a good dog, haven’t you, Alf?”
“Yep,” I says.
“I wish,” he says, “you’d lend him to Jo, here.”
“What fer?” says Jo. “What fer?”
“To drive them sheep off his mind,” says Jim.
An appreciative snicker went over the group, and Paul joined it. This, after all, was his normal environment, these country folk with their slow speech, their ignorance, their lack of interest in anything outside their own immediate environment. All his excitement about the war—it seemed out of place here, foolish.
He went back to Toronto without saying anything to his father about the army. It was too alien a thing.
"XTAY once more. Paul, exams done -*-YL ancj home for the summer, rested his horses at the end of the round. He had been cultivating all afternoon at the far end of the six-acre field next McAdoo’s Woods, getting ready for roots. Black the soil lay in little ridges where the cultivator had torn it up, grayish where it was as yet untouched. A squall of rain had passed and the clouds of it, bluishblack, hung in the east, a rainbow painted on them. The air felt fresh, washed. An oriole was carolling in the orchard around the house there to the west of him. Behind it stood MacNab’s Hill with the maples of Campbell’s Woods in the beauty of their half-fledged leaves—just as they had stood last year, just as they would stand in years to come.
Beauty—Paul drank it in, lines in his hand—beauty of sight, of scent, of feeling. Tomorrow he would wheel to Glennville to see Eileen again. He had been trying to centre his thoughts on her these last two months. The more so since Nettie was becoming a memory, a memory enshrined, but one which, after all, could not interfere too much with the business of living. So quickly does youth wall over a wound, does it block off the past and live for the present and the future. But the wound is still there. Eileen, though—she was worth any boy’s thoughts, with her daintiness, her frank ways, and her blue eyes as bluish-black, he remembered sentimentally, as yonder cloud. It would be fine to see her once more, and fine, too, to be in town again.
“The farm,” thought Paul, recalling a dictum of his brother, “is a great place when you can get away from it.”
Over on the left he could see Andy MaeNab ploughing. He watched his slowmoving progress. Did he ever think? he wondered. And if he did, what about? About Dorothy Hunter? Engaged to her for nine years now, and no nearer marriage—not while his brothers Billy and Ralph and his sister Amiah lived, the four of them to share that hundred acres. Nor was Andy making any move. Quite content, he seemed, to plod along. Was it sluggishness or just content? Paul wondered again. They didn’t read, these other farmers didn’t. Out in the field by seven, working there till six, with an hour for lunch, and then their chores to do and off to bed. If they had a moment or two they spent it lounging around, looking unseeingly, it seemed to Paul, at things about them, telling gossip if there was any to hand—clods of earth. Saturday night, hitch up and drive to town. Sunday to church.
Paul had done that, too. What was there in it? Wander up and down the street, doing a little shopping, stopping to talk to others, wandering aimlessly like yourself, young fellows and girls in that eternal search for something—they knew not what; older folks snoring in a tired way—little else to do, and habit strong upon them. What was there in life for them? he thought, starting his horses. Wasn’t it better to try something, to keep driving at something even if you never got anywhere, even if you knew you never would get anywhere? Perhaps, though, it was a curse, this restlessness. Perhaps they had the true content, living close to the earth like the slow-moving, peacefuleyed cows, chewing their cud down there in the yard, troubled only by flies; with no imagination to foresee pain or torment or death. A depression seized upon him, succeeded his mood of happiness.
Paul was at peace as he walked the half-mile from the house toward the school and the mailbox. The noon sun was hot and unwinking, the dust of the road kicked up in little puffs each time he put his foot down. But at his side Grierson’s brook tinkled along refreshingly. It was sparkling clear in the sunlight, and the lush grass along its banks was fresh and green, as green, he thought to himself, as the dress Eileen had worn last Sunday. How pretty she had looked and how pleasant his visit had been. She had seemed so pleased at his coming, and for once he had felt at ease. He had talked about their agreement and she had listened and agreed—it did not occur to Paul that that agreement of hers had been a trifle hesitant. She had agreed and the visit had been lovely—even if its close had been spoiled by those girls who had come in to see Eileen, and who by their chatter had brought back upon him one of his recurrent fits of embarrassment.
But, he frowned as he reached the cedar grove that lined the deserted schoolyard, there was no sense in the way Eileen had talked about Booth Fraser— even if he had a commission and was likely to leave for overseas soon. What was that she had said about giving him a good-by kiss? Why—he had come to the corner—why, he hadn’t had a kiss himself yet. And to kiss anyone else—she couldn’t do that—not if she was his girl. He would have to talk to her . . .
He had arrived at the line of mailboxes, perched each on its own post, and was fumbling in Honey’s box for the mail. His heart beat fast. Was there a letter from Eileen? There was.
Strolling back along the hot road he read it eagerly. Eileen had been to Chatham. She had visited her friend, Lila. They had had a lovely time, out boating and swimming—with whom? he wondered. She had gone home two days ago. Her niece, Marion, had the cutest kitten. It would be all right for him to come down, Sunday. And then a sentence or two added as an afterthought. He read them again.
“By the way, you were talking again about our ‘agreement’ last time you were down. I’m not quite sure about it yet. We can talk it over when you come in.”
This agreement again. Paul thought about it frowning. It was clear, wasn’t it? And she’d agreed. Perhaps, the idea suggested itself to him from his own experience, perhaps she wanted to talk about it again, to find pleasure in repetition. His face cleared. That must be it, and perhaps that kiss . . .
He looked up the road ahead of him, to where on the little crest of the ridge the white ribbon of the road was covered by the arching elms. Beyond the brow there was Eldad church, and near it lay Nettie. Ought he to tell Eileen about her? She was dead now. Dead and buried in the cemetery. He saw the spot, so quiet on Sunday, the grass growing lankly between the tombstones, some of them fallen drunkenly aside, and the little rough bit of earth under which she was, scarred with a few furtive spears of grass which had started to shoot up through the upturned sod. He shivered a little. DeatbCseemed so alien to this bright glare of sunshine and yet so native to it. Those sheep asleep by the roadside . . .
IDAUL’S coming down tomorrow?” -®Etta said.
“Ye-es,” agreed Eileen.
“What are you going to do about Booth Fraser?”
“I don’t know,” Eileen confessed. “It’s too bad.”
“It’s his last leave,” Etta reminded her.
“Well, Paul hasn’t enlisted He isn’t taking a chance on getting killed.”
“It’s Paul’s father,” explained Eileen. “He doesn’t want him to go.”
“Bosh! If he wanted to go, that wouldn’t stop him. How he can stand not to be in khaki !”
“Well,” said Eileen, her voice cool. “I suppose that’s his affair.”
Etta looked at her and changed her tone. “Perhaps it is,” she said more mildly. “But he surely doesn’t expect you not to see a fellow who is going?” She hesitated, fidgeted with a pencil, then burst out: “It’s crazy anyway, him not wanting you to go out with anyone else. That’s—that’s before-the-flood stuff.” She laughed a vexed laugh. “After all I’ve told you, too. Those boys that you’ve known ever since—ever since you were knee-high to a grasshopper.”
She waited for her sister to answer, but Eileen sat there stubbornly looking at her shoes.
“Why don’t you make him change?” Etta suggested finally. “Look at the way Marge Collins goes out with other fellows. And you’re not engaged. Fools if you were! At your age!”
Eileen still sat there. You could not tell, Etta reflected angrily, if she was even listening to you.
“Besides,” she went on, controlling her anger, “take his side of it. Look at how embarrassed he gets with other girls. Wouldn’t it be better if he went out a bit more and got those rough edges smoothed off? He’ll thank you for it afterward. You could still be special friends. Isn’t that reasonable?”
She paused again, waited, got up, started to go, and changed her mind. “If you won’t answer, you won’t,” she flared. “But it’s for your own good. You’ll be sorry if you don’t see Booth tonight. It’s only putting Paul off a few hours. He can see you tomorrow. But this is Booth’s last night. Supposing he’s killed.”
Eileen stirred, and tapped the floor with her toe. “That’s true,” she agreed.
Paul came swinging down the street to Eileen’s home. It was all right to go to see her now, now that she was his girl, now that there was no danger of her leading him on and then making a fool of him. He held his head high, oblivious of the folks on their front porches, proud of himself.
Eileen was out on the verandah. She greeted him a little distractedly, but Paul did not notice it. He sat down full of happiness, looking at her eagerly, drinking in her neatness, her prettiness.
“Great weather, isn’t it? You’re looking awfully well.”
Eileen did not know how to begin. She leaned over nervously as they talked on about casual things, picked up a kitten and started to stroke it. Paul leaned over to pat it, too. The nearness to Eileen intoxicated him.
“How about a long walk,” he suggested, “out to the railroad bridge?”
Eileen took the plunge. “I can’t, Paul,” she said. “Booth—Booth Fraser’s coming tonight.”
“Booth Fraser,” Paul repeated, scarcely understanding.
“Yes, it’s his last leave and I promised him. I knew,” she hurried on, “that you wouldn’t mind. Seeing that it’s his last leave.” Paul said nothing and Eileen went on still more nervously. “And then tomorrow we can have a real visit, can’t we?”
“I don’t know,” Paul said abruptly. “Perhaps I won’t be here.”
“Oh!” said Eileen, a little spot of color coming into her cheeks.
There was a tense silence for an instant or so, while their thoughts crossed and recrossed like lightning.
“Can’t you be reasonable?” Eileen burst out.
“What about our agreement?” Paul countered stubbornly. “My wheeling all these miles, and you going—going out with someone else. Making a fool of me!”
“You’re making a fool of yourself,” Eileen told him hotly. “If you’d be reasonable. When it’s his last night. Can’t you see?”
Paul refused to see. A slow anger was smoldering in him. She was his girl. What did Booth Fraser, what did anyone else matter? No matter what they did. Not if she was his girl. “Our agreement,” he began . . .
“I wanted to talk to you about that, too,” Eileen broke in. She was thoroughly roused now. “That agreement; it isn’t sensible. That’s what Etta says. Youngsters like we are! You’ll be in Toronto. No reason why I shouldn’t go with the bunch, is there? Why, I’ve known them for years.” She stopped, seeing the look on Paul’s face, hesitated. “We can still be special friends, Paul.” She said in a softer voice.
“Special friends!” Paul repeated bitterly. “Special friends! Remember I said I wouldn’t go out with other girls, didn’t I?”
“Well, that’s another thing,” Eileen told him. “Etta thinks it might do you good to go out with other girls. Then you’d—you’d—well, you wouldn’t be quite so embarrassed when you meet folks.”
Paul flushed scarlet.
“I don’t mean,” Eileen hurried on, contrite, “that you don’t know how to do things. You do. But somehow—well, down here—oh, I don’t know how to say it!”
“You don’t need to,” Paul said. He got up and started to look for his cap.
“Why, Paul !” Eileen exclaimed.
“There’s Booth Fraser,” said Paul. He walked to the head of the steps. Eileen followed him and touched his arm.
“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said, as he stopped.
Paul looked at her, looked at Booth Fraser coming up the sidewalk so handsome in his uniform, swinging his cane, so insolently sure of himself. Eileen, he thought suddenly, she’d kiss him tonight. The thought made him want to grind his teeth, to shout, to curse horribly. He spoke to him politely. He even talked to him for a moment, wished him luck, watched him go to the door of the house to speak to Etta. He put on his cap and started to go down the steps. Eileen spoke to him. Her eyes were very bright.
“See you tomorrow, Paul,” she said again. “Good night.” “Good-by,” he told her, underscoring the wopd heavily.
“Now, what—” said Etta, catching the tone, “now, what did he mean by that?” Eileen, with a little chilling in her heart, was afraid that she knew.
STOOKING oats in the ash-tree field next Monday, Paul rehearsed the whole affair. He felt quite sure now that Eileen had just been making game of him. His pride ached teKribly. To think of him giving any girl the chance to do that! How folks whom you loved could hurt you ! He’d never go near her again. But he’d show her ! Kissing Booth Fraser ! If that was what uniform did—he’d enlist, and if he was killed . . .
He allowed himself to day-dream for a moment, imagining himself being killed in some heroic feat, imagining Eileen reading about it, and weeping for him. She’d be sorry. The fact that he wouldn’t be there to see it did not cool his ardor. It was a beautiful scene, and tears came to his own eyes contemplating it. But he put the dreams aside. He had to act now. When would he enlist? Not this summer. He'd like to, but how could he leave dad with all the work to do? He shrank from tel'ing dad, anyway. Dad was so keen against the war. Just mentioning it sent him off.
“Enlist!” he’d say. “Crazy! ’Taint our war! Just a bunch of big bugs in England quarrelling with a bunch of big fellows in Germany. You keep out of it!” It was hard to go against dad. He was so—so forceful. Always had a reason for everything. Mother, too, it would tear her heart out. No, he’d wait, join the O.T.C. in the fall. Then he wouldn’t have to tell them. Not yet.
Into his resolution came the memory of what Eileen had said about the way he acted. Couldn’t she understand, he asked himself, jamming the butt-end of a sheaf down hard, that he hadn’t gone with other girls because of her? And he’d had chances. Camilla, for instance. And as for him being awkward—couldn’t she understand that it had been because of her, because of her people—worrying what they would think of him?
He wiped the perspiration from his forehead and glanced for an instant at the hot sun. Almost suppertime.
Wanting him to go with other girls! Well, he would! He’d show her. He’d enlist and go with lots of them. Why not? And every time he kissed one . . .
He felt hard and bitter and went about his stooking viciously. It was hot work, this. The field was about half done. Around the block of white-headed oats in the centre—its walls rising sheer from the shorn stubble, like the edge of a tiny forest, the stems for thickset tree trunks, the heads for foliated branches—his father was driving the binder. The three horses, old Doll in the centre, sweated and strained, the lash with the little weight of iron at the end of it spurring them into intermittent spurts. Behind them the reel, moving in jerky flashes like a wooden puppet, knocked the oats over to meet the whirring knives. They bent, the oats did, Paul decided, under its compulsion like folks bending to pray, or like Christians waiting to be scourged. Click— click—click—went the knotter in monotonous repetition, and at each click a sheaf of oats, pushed into a compact mass by the busy fingers above it, was tied and knotted and thrust out to fall into the sheaf carrier. Three or four of them, and the carrier duriiped, leaving them in a row ready for him to stoock. Round and round the binder went, while Paul dotted the stubble with rows of stooks looking, he had used to imagine, like little tents standing up sturdy and thick. He picked up a sheaf and saw a fieldmouse scamper from under it. Dad would kill that, he reflected. But why should he? It was senseless, killing things. Suppose he joined the army! He’d have to kill, then, or be killed. How would a bayonet feel, tearing inside your stomach, makim mincemeat of your insides, running riot He shuddered a little. But he’d have to He had to do something this time. Show Eileen somehow. It would be hard on dad and mother. But this fall . . .
A shout from his father at the corner. Jean had come out with supper from the house. All packed in a pail, steaming hot. Paul left his stooking and walked over. His father was already busy with the horses, shifting their collars forward on their necks to let in cool air at them—hot as fire the flesh there felt to the touch. Doll’s shoulder-sore, too, looked raw and angry; the pad must have shifted a bit. Paul undid the heavy tongue, and let the horses’ heads drop to the oat sheaves in front of them.
They sat down to their meal, Jean waiting until they were done. It was appetizing, this was. Hot, fried potatoes, cold meat, and coffee. Coffee they rarely had at Honey’s, except on occasions like this. How good it tasted! The potatoes, too—and the grateful breeze of evening starting to breathe, a little fitfully as yet. Paul relaxed, eating in dreamy contentment, the neck of his shirt open, his eyes vacant. There was pie to come yet, and cake. Nor would it be long till quitting time. He heard Jean telling the news; listened to her lazily.
“And, oh yes,” she went on, “there’s been a big battle, thousands killed.”
War again. Paul jerked back to the thought. So peaceful here. But over there in France, on a hot day like this, sweating and swearing and raging—killing each other. A pulse beat in his temples.