A Son of Eli
Adventuring youth discovers that a step in the dark is, after all, just that
W. G. HARDY
Illustrated by E. J. DINSMORE
The Story: Paul Honey, country-bred, in Ontario, meets Nettie Noice, daughter of Old Man Noice, a hell-fire-threatening neighbor of his father’s.
Nettie is utterly downtrodden at home, and Paul makes love to her in boyish pity as much as anything. The old man comes upon them, whirls Nettie away, and marries her almost at once to a rough farmer, Squint-Eyed Pete.
Next year she dies, but does not altogether pass from Paul’s memory.
Between Noice and Mr. Honey there is hostility, and Noice revenges himself for Honey’s having overreached him in a deal for a farm by resorting to the primitive ceremony of “churching” : testifying against him in open meeting. Nothing comes of it, however, since Honey is well-prepared to meet his charges.
Meantime Paul has met Eileen Ainsley, a girl of his own age, at collegiate in the nearby town: and a friendship has sprung up between them. Paul goes in to Toronto to attend university, and meets several other girls, but remains faithful to Eileen. He undergoes the usual doubts and difficulties of fledgling youth.
It is wartime, and Mr. Honey does not approve of enlistment. Consequently Paul remains out of the army for some time, until a quarrel with Eileen, who is favoring another boy already in uniform, makes up his mind for him and he joins the army. The quarrel, however, is sufficiently sharp to estrange Paul and Eileen temporarily.
Paul, in his early army days, meets Gladys Powell, a Toronto girl, and is attracted by her, although wartime Toronto gives him plenty of other experiences with which to round out the intellectual troubles of a young man at the university.
EILEEN was in the city. She had come up to visit Lila, her old friend from Chatham. Lila was on the occasional teaching staff in Toronto now, and her people had moved into the city.
Eileen telephoned Paul, trying to be gay and to act as if nothing had happened.
“I hoped you’d be able to get down during Christmas leave,” she told him.
“Sorry,” said Paul, “but I only had a day or two.” “Of course,” she said—a pause. “Could you come out to see me?” Another pause.
“Why, yes. I guess so.”
She gave him the address, and hung up the receiver. “He’s in the army, this fellow is?” asked Lila.
“Yes,” Eileen nodded.
“Well, I’ll get Tom in and we can have a little party —dance a bit.”
“I don’t know,” said Eileen doubtfully, “that he dances. He didn’t when I knew him.”
“Sure he does. Or if he doesn’t, we can teach him.” The afternoon seemed very long to Eileen. She was restless, wandering about, debating with herself.
That letter of Paul’s. Not a hint in it, either, that there had been any trouble. Couldn’t he, she asked herself, read between the lines, guess what it had cost her to write first? What was she going to do when she saw him?
“I suppose,” Etta had said curiously, when she was leaving Glennville, “you’ll be seeing Paul Honey?”
“I don’t know!”
“Well,” Etta had gone on, “I didn’t think he had the nerve to buzz off like that.” She had paused, added, “He was sure crazy about you, kid.”
Was he really? Eileen wondered. Or had his feeling all gone? She’d like to know, to make sure. She must, she felt, get him off by himself, and get things straightened out. Nothing else for it. She’d have to swallow her pride.
But when Paul came into the hall that evening she scarcely recognized him. The few months had made such a difference. Uniform became him, too, cast a glamor over him. Quite suddenly diffidence laid hold of her. This soldier, this stranger wasn’t Paul. How could she talk to him? And, as they sat in the parlor chatting and laughing, this feeling grew. She began to get nervous, and to wonder what she could say.
There was a lull in the talk. “Let’s dance,” Lila said, jumping up vivaciously. “You dance, sergeant?” “Yes,” Paul answered. Eileen looked at him as he got up to help start the victrola. Yes, he had changed. There was an assurance, an ease about him—a little hardness, too.
Lila took Paul for the first dance. Eileen had him for the next. Paul’s thoughts flashed to Gladys. She danced, he realized, infinitely better than Eileen, was more graceful, pliant. Prettier, too. He regarded Eileen searchingly as he danced with Lila again, measuring her by the new standards he had acquired, wondering why she did not seem so marvellous, so unattainable as she once had. Did he really want her? he asked himself.
Yet, after a dance or two, Eileen’s old fascination for him began to assert itself. She was so boyish, so free from affectation. If only, he told himself, he could see her alone—he’d take the plunge. He’d ask her if she meant all that last summer, if she wanted to make up. Funny, he reflected, as he talked and laughed, how one can think so many things and other folks not know them. You’d think they’d feel.
SAY,” said Lila—the girls had gone into the kitchen to get some food —“whatever made you think that fellow was slow?”
“He used to be,” answered Eileen, pouring out the coffee.
“Well, believe me, he’s changed. He knows his way around, that fellow, and I ought to know.”
He certainly was changed, Eileen thought, for the tenth time, as the four of them chatted over the eats. She wouldn’t have known him. Dancing so well, talking so easily, giving Lila and Tom tit for tat. Just the right touch.
Not boastful, but assured. It shook her confidence still more. She had been so sure of him last summer. Too sure. She was almost sick with nervousness now, wondering what
she could do or say. She did not, in fact, scarcely know what she was saying. But she must at all costs save her face before Lila; mustn’t show her.
“I guess,” Paul said, getting up reluctantly, “I’ll have to get back. Lights out, you know.” He looked at Eileen. Surely she could realize how he felt and could make a chance to see him alone. “When are you going back?” he asked her.
“Day after tomorrow,” she told him. Lila and Tom, she knew, were watching her. She laughed nervously and took refuge in forced gaiety. “And Lila’s got me pretty well dated up.”
“Every moment,” Lila chipped in. “You’ll have to work fast, sergeant.”
Paul’s temper flared up. Trying to bring him to heel, was she? He’d show her. “I’ve got a party on myself tomorrow night,” he countered. “So I mayn’t see you again.”
“Oh!” Eileen felt dull, flat, as if she could cudgel her brains for an hour and not beat out an idea. Why did things work out this way? Those unfortunate words. “I’ll —I’ll phone,” she said.
Paul smiled—a Robot’s smile. “Fine,” he replied. “Of course, I’m drilling all day.”
He went into the hall and she followed him, eager to speak to him. But there was no chance. Lila’s friend came out after them and started to put on his things. Nothing, Eileen realized, was working out right. The hand she put into Paul’s to say good-by was cold and clammy.
Paul himself was in a fury as he stamped down the street. Why couldn’t he have seen her alone? Why couldn’t she have made the chance? Did she want to? Or was it to be like her letter, stringing him along.
Gladys, he thought, in fierce reaction, was different. She let a fellow know when she liked him. He hadn’t intended going out there tomorrow night. But he would now.
SAY,” said Lila to Eileen, after the two boys had gone, “is he a special friend of yours?”
“I suppose,” Lila went on, “he’ll be off for overseas soon.”
“I suppose so !”
“My, you’re chatty!” Lila remarked huffed, and dropped the subject.
Eileen had no further opportunity to see Paul. She phoned the next evening and left her number, but no call came. Before she knew it, she was on the train, ready to go home.
“Oh,” said Lila, as the train started to pull out, “I saw that sergeant of yours. He was out driving with the swellest girl in the swellest car.”
Eileen’s trip to Glennville was one of the most miserable she had ever known.
THORNTON limped laboriously down the street on his way to the Reference Library. Lucky he had some work to do. Lonesome otherwise. He saw a uniform approaching. Uniform had a morbid interest for Thornton, the interest of the unattainable. He stared hard at the soldier, recognized the face and stopped.
“Why! hello, sergeant!” he said. “Didn’t I meet you at Powell’s?”
“Why, yes. I’d been planning to come up to see you.” Thornton made a quick decision. “Come up tonight,” he said.
“Well, if I’m not interrupting you.”
“Nothing that can’t wait.”
Thornton turned with him, and they went up the street again.
Paul looked around him with an interest he could scarcely conceal. He had never been in rooms like this before. A big cosy spot lined with bookshelves, with the oddest curios on top of them; a headhunter’s skull; a Turkish pipe—half a hundred odds and ends. A fireplace, too, and the deep recess of a window; a door leading to a smaller room—“Where I sleep,” Thornton said. He had taken down a brass cigarette box.
“Smoke?” he asked, and when Paul had taken one, put the box back, and filled a pipe for himself.
This was comfortable and fitting in to some need in Paul. Great to have a spot like this, withdrawn from the world, where you could sit and think. He looked appreciatively at the bookshelves.
“I got hold of Flecker,” he said diffidently. “Some lovely things, hasn’t he?”
“Right,” said Thornton. “He’s good. Flecker has such a sense of rhythm, shows the classic touch and what classics can do for a chap. When you work it right.” He got up suddenly. “Ever read Francis Thompson?” “No.”
“You ought to. Wait. I’ve a copy here.”
He got it and turned the pages. “Here’s ‘The Hound of Heaven’.” He read it while Paul listened enthralled —Thornton could read well.
T fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways, Of my own mind;”
Thornton finished, closed the book. “Great verse, eh?” “Great,” Paul agreed. “But”—he felt timid about offering a suggestion, but it was impressed upon him. “But do you think his philosophy is quite right?” “Oh,” said Thornton. “I don’t know. Nor do I care— much! If poetry is good poetry—I don’t care what the ideas are, so. long as there are some.”
He closed the book. “It reminds me,” he went on, “of Masefield,
‘Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir, Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,’
All sorts of mistakes in detail in that. But it doesn’t spoil the beauty of it. You know the rest.” He quoted it.
“You know,” said Paul, his mood ripe for confiding in him. “You’ve opened a new world to me.”
They sat late that night, talking, discussing in that happy atmosphere when two persons feel themselves in perfect accord. Paul interested, eager, Thornton meeting him halfway. More than halfway, drawn out of himself, Thornton was.
“Something to that youngster,” he reflected, after his guest had gone. “There’s poetry in him, whether it ever comes to birth or not. I wish Gladys hadn’t got her claws into him. He’s just the sort—avid for new experiences. Something fresh and unspoiled about him.”
He snapped off the light.
T AST leave.” Paul said it aloud, trying to make it
' seem real. “Last leave.” In a week or so he would be on the ocean pulling away into the unknown. It would all be strange, uncharted. Panic gripped him as he realized it. He had put aside the thought of all that might happen for so long. But now he couldn’t escape it. Dirt, blood, anguish—death. He shivered, tried to force himself to face things, to see them clearly. To be killed? That, he tried to tell himself, wouldn’t be so bad. Not if he was killed outright and at once. He quoted a line of Housman’s under his breath:
“Shot! so quick, so clean an ending!”
Not so bad. Though it would be hard on Mother and Dad. Dad had been so decent about his enlisting, although he had become more bitter than ever about the war. Jean had, she had told Paul, begged him to be careful.
“It’s not so bad around home,” she had said to him. “They don’t care two hoots about the war anyway. But in town it’s dangerous. Lots of folks there have their boys overseas.”
Yes, it would be hard on them. But as for himself? Immortality? He wondered But suppose he was
maimed? Like that legless fellow he had seen dragging himself along King Street. No good to anybody. If one were maimed—
Worse than that, the actual fighting. Filth and noise and blood and sweat and rage and hate. No fairness, no rules about it. Nothing to protect one but oneself. All the laws of God and man flung overboard.
He shuddered again, wondered if he could stick it, if his nerve would break. He couldn’t, he told himself, stand this. He got up and tramped about the room. He must, he felt, get out and do something, forget about it. Gladys! He went down the stairs two at a time to the phone. What was her number?
“Hello there,” he said. “How you was?”
“Fine and dandy,” she answered. “What’s new?”
“We’ve got our last leave.”
“We’ve got our last leave,” he repeated, trying to make it light and cheery. “Great news, eh?”
“Oh!” Paul heard her gasp. Then“You must come out and see me.” “When?”
“All right. I’ll be there.”
The sense of unreality that had clung to him was dissipated. He felt contrite, dismayed.
“I’m sorry, Gladys,” he whispered. “Awfully sorry.”
“It’s all right, Paul,” she answered him. “All right.”
“You lovely thing,” he told her. “We’ll get married—tomorrow?” “Yes—perhaps we’d better.”
TN HIS room he went over and over the scene. It had been so natural, had fitted in so easily with his mood. And Gladys—she had seemed exalted, forgetful of herself. It hadn’t seemed like sin. There had been no warning of danger. This had happened so suddenly, with such utter lack of premeditation. Themselves alone in the world.
But now. He must get convention on his side, on Gladys’ side, protect them both. The publicity! He shrank from that. Doing something like this was unconventional, even if it were to satisfy convention—a curious paradox. His folks would, he knew, be surprised and shocked. Getting married wasn’t a
thing to be done in such haste in the country—unless one had something to conceal.
He turned with relief to more practical matters. What did one do to get married? There’d be a license and a ring. He reflected upon it. Decided to ask Robby. Robby would think him a fool, but he’d help him, and ask no questions. Comforting, Robby was.
MORNING and Gladys telephoning him.
“About getting married.”
“Yes,” Paul was quick to break in. “I’m going over to get the license right away.”
“Well, I was thinking. What do you say about keeping it dark?”
“Keeping it dark?”
“Yes. You see it would be awkward for me just now. There’d be so much explaining. And dad can be nasty —sometimes.”
Keeping it dark! Paul saw with a throb of thankfulness that that would solve matters, would effect a compromise. She’d be safe, and he wouldn’t have to explain to his home folks. There would be no awkwardness. When he came back—. She was speaking again, worried by his silence.
“You see, Paul, when you come back we could get married again. Have a real wedding, a church one. You an officer. Think how nice it would be. Just what I’ve wanted.”
“All right, dear,” said Paul, keeping his voice steady. “That’s fine. Now where will I meet you?” I’ll have to take the evening train home, you know.”
Gladys reflected as she hung up the receiver that he was easy to manage—she smiled a little. He was rather a dear, and by the time she had got him trained. Besides, when he came back an officer. In between she could still go around with the crowd, have a good time. And so much might happen. But he was a dear!
LAST leave was a hectic affair. Paul and his folks seemed to be doing something all the time, sheering away from dangerous topics, sticking to the commonplace, keeping busy.
“Another good year or two,” his father would say, “and I’ll retire.”
Paul would agree how fine this was, meantime looking about him, trying to fix each detail of the farm, of the house in his memory, storing up for the dead blank days. That elm in the schoolhouse field, how gracious it looked even in March with its bare disconsolate limbs. He wished his last look at the place could have been in summer. He would have to depend on older memories for that.
As for his folks, he looked at them covertly, etching their lineaments, their expressions, on his brain. His father reading, for instance, how wrinkled his face, what a look of defeat about him, in spite of his success; and his mother rocking over there by the window, hands folded, looking at nothing—or was it at crowding memories? How many times had she rocked him to sleep, when he was a little fellow, he wondered, with just that look on her face. Old people both of them. Past the peak and going down hill. What were their thoughts? What did they think about life? A coming and a going and in between countless things, little things. Never time for the worth-while things. Who knew what the worth-while things were? On a train speeding out of nowhere, driving into the mists of nowhere. Fill up the time with striving and with getting, with orange peeling and with toys. What would he think about when he was old?
Gladys! She seemed far away here, to belong to another life. He would close his eyes trying to visualize her, but found her hard to summon. Instead Eileen’s face kept coming before his, dewy-eyed, with quivering lips, as he had seen her when, visiting in Glennville two days ago, he had gone in to say good-by. Think of how, standing there, hands gripping the back of a chair, she had tried to tell him that she was sorry for last summer. How like a brute that had made him feel ! How terrible, too! He couldn’t tell her about Gladys, couldn’t explain that he was married, couldn’t, in fact, trust himself to say anything except to mumble that it was “all right.’’
But how he had wanted to kiss her, to comfort her. Of course he couldn’t. He had stumbled away in panic.
Didn’t marriage, he asked himself, end such feelings in a fellow? Could so soon another woman appeal to him so strongly? Eileen! But what could he do? There was Gladys.
And so last leave passed on wings, fast following the speeding feet of time.
They stopped the cutter on Noice’s hill, on the way back to the station, while he took in once again the old familiar scene behind him. The schoolhouse, the little knoll with the big brick house standing out among the trees, the woods on either side and behind it all the ridge of McWhirter’s hill—a picture never to leave him.
'T'HEY stood in line at the Union Station, the men of the draft. In civilian clothes they were, their dunnage at their feet, all excited, two or three people around each. Gladys was there. Lila too—come to see him off. Then a tall figure came limping up.
“Thornton!” Paul exclaimed.
Thornton gripped his hand. “I envy you, old top,” he said.
Gladys broke in. “Why, Thornton, who would have thought of seeing you here?”
“Quite so,” said Thornton a little grimly. “And you?”
If he knew, thought Paul.
“All aboard,” the train announcer was shouting.
“Squad, shun!” the lieutenant was calling out. The major said a few words. There was a ragged cheer and a shaking of hands, a kissing desperately all round again. The men got under way, and straggled down to the train.
ÜAUL’S battalion—his was a British regiment—was
back in billets. Overhead the sun of late winter with a promise of spring in it, shone brilliantly in an ultramarine sky. From where he sat reading his letters Paul could see the long swelling slope stretching to the north lit up by it; a slope beautiful once with waving corn and gracious trees, but now bleak and scarred and ugly. Overhead an airplane droned ceaselessly with the same monotonous effect, Paul told himself, as that achieved by the war whistles in Masefield’s “Lost Endeavor”— as monotonous and as ceaseless, too, as this war.
Almost a year now, Paul reflected, since that March day on which he had had his last sight of home, the bare trees around the house tossing their branches in the wind. But it seemed more than a year. Interminable.
No use thinking about it, he said to himself. Kismet. Take comfort when it came. And it was comfortable here relaxing after the dirt and stench of the line, clean, well-fed, letters from home. Links with the past, letters were, slices of a forgotten life so different that one could scarcely comprehend one’s having been a part of it. Like faeryland letters took one away from the strange present, so queer that it, too, seemed unreal. For an hour one could be back across the sea in places once familiar.
He looked through his letters, and picked out one from Gladys. Her writing was like her, feminine, jerky, no connectives, no spacing. The letter itself was a disconnected account of parties, of what she and so and so had been doing, mixed up with paragraphs telling how she missed him, how eager she was for him to be back.
“I liked that picture of you,” she wrote. “I knew you’d make a swell officer! I can just see us being married, can’t you? Genevieve”—now, who the dickens, Paul thought, was Genevieve—“was married last week. At St. Paul’s. Just oodles of gifts. Won’t I love you when I see you, sweetheart! There was a big dance last week—and music that made me think of you, of an evening so long ago, and yet not so long ago. Do you remember, big boy? An R.A.F. cadet at this one. Awfully nice kid. Swell uniform. I was quite gone on it. Why don’t you join the R.A.F.? You’d make a swell airman.”
Gladys, Paul reflected, seemed about the most unreal thing about all that dead life. He took out a snapshot he had of her, and gazed at it, trying to revive his sentimentality about her. But it was of no effect. “Could it be,” he thought, “that he was married to that girl?” It didn’t seem possible. She looked like a strange girl—a desirable girl—but a stranger. Not nearly so real as Eileen. Was there a letter from her? He ran through his mail, found one, and opened it. So frank and cheerful this was. She was in Toronto, on the permanent staff, teaching. Lila was there, too. Conscription was taking a lot of boys. Howard Fountain had enlisted. Just a
chatty letter about some of the folks both of them knew.
He dropped her letter and looked out over the hill. That old quarrel he had kept so long in his heart seemed so silly now, so futile. He had only been a youngster then, hadn’t understood that there are other ways of thought and of conduct than those of the farm. He’d write and tell her so. Not that it would do any good. He was married after all. But at least, he’d put himself straight—he smiled a little. That was a selfish motive, too, that was ! Most things folks did were selfish—in the last analysis—even this going to war. Well, he was paying up for that anyway. So much beastliness, so many horrible things. One had to be callous. Go mad else.
He turned again to his letters. Was there one from home? Yes, here was Jean’s handwriting. A short note from Dad first, in his crabbed penmanship with its old time curlicues and twists, written along the edge and the top to save space as usual. Part of his father’s boyhood training, that was. Living had been so hard in England when he was there. But his father’s writing was vivid, conveying to him, more than that of anyone else, pictures of things as they were, all the little homely details of life on the farm.
“We took out two hundred bushels of turnips. We never thought, did we, son, of selling turnips. They use them now for jam, they say. The alsike turned out fine —over six bushel to the acre. I got my garden stuff in last Friday. We got some great punkins. Ready for Thanksgiving. Wish you could be here for some punkin pie”—and so on.
His eyes were blurred a little with passionate longing as he put the page aside. So many memories it recalled to him. He could see, could feel, could almost smell that day when he had been ploughing the headland of the front field just at noon on Thanksgiving Day. That bright sun from a cloudless sky beating on him as he moved along, lines around his waist, jerked here and there by the plough-handles—stony this headland was— shouting at his team. A rig clattering along the road. Uncle Jim stopping to shout and wave at him as he reached the end of the furrow. Uncle Jim with Aunt Zipporah, Janey and Willie coming for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Straight ploughing, boy!” He remembered yet how he had thrilled at the praise. He was, let’s see, fourteen then—and Uncle Jim was an authority on ploughing.
“Funny,” he thought, “how moments out of the past can come back to one so vividly and so clearly.” For a fugitive instant, he could even smell the clean, earthy smell of the furrow, the tang of the horses’ sweat, could feel that hot sun beating so gratefully on him, could see Uncle Jim waving to him with Janey and Willie leaning out of the shadow of the buggy top, so as to see him, too. Living, Uncle Jim was, in that picture. But dead for six years now. Willie, too. Willie with whom he had played that Thanksgiving afternoon after the hot roast chicken, the turnip, the pumpkin pie—shuffling through fallen leaves in McAdoo’s woods, shouting, playing tag, climbing for beech nuts. “The moving finger writes—”
He heaved a sigh and took up the other enclosures in the letter. One from his mother, hoping he wouldn’t catch cold, telling him to wrap up warmly, one sentence about “this awful war.” Harder on her! Then Jean’s bit. Jean was married now but she was still near home. He read it more hastily until a paragraph caught his attention:
“I wish we could get Dad stopped talking about the war. He’s got so bitter about it, you know, and folks around here are beginning to notice. I think perhaps it’s the draft. Did you know that they have actually started to take some of the boys around here? Jimmy Garfield has gone and Bill Noice. And there’s talk that more will have to go. The folks wouldn’t believe it at first—that some of them might have to go. You know they sort of snickered about you, and thought that you were a fool for enlisting. They imagined that they were safe and that farmers would never be touched by the war. So they didn’t care what anybody said. Now, they’re getting patriotic all of a sudden, and especially old man Noice.”
Noice again. How bitter he had felt against him when he had heard of Nettie’s death, how he had hoped that the old man would be punished. But nothing had happened to him. He had gone on prospering, had added another farm to his collection. Getting old, too. But not too old for bitterness. Still, Dad would be all right. He was a shrewd man, Dad was. There were some other letters left. He turned them over, came to one he hadn’t noticed at first from Thornton, by Jove! He was quite eager as he tore it open. Thornton always had something interesting to say. This was even more interesting than usual.
“By the way,” he wrote, “I’m going to try my hand at publishing. Of course it will be a small thing at first. Just myself in a little office acting as agent for publishers. A chap called Sowerby is to do the travelling end. Probably it will never get much bigger.”
A sentence or two more about it, and then came a proposal that quite enthralled Paul.
“How would you like,” the letter said, “to go in with me? I’ll need someone to give me a hand, I hope. I’d be only too pleased to have you. Some of that verse you sent wasn’t at all bad. I wish you’d think it over.”
Good of Thornton this was. Paul would love to try it. But there was that suggestion of Gladys before he left.
“I’ll get Dad to give you a job,” she had said, “where you can make lots of money.”
What could he do about that?
After all he was married. And Gladys, he suspected, would require a lot of money. Quite right, too. She had always been accustomed to it. Still, he would like to have a shot at things with Thornton.
The rest of the letter was casual, telling about things he had been doing, shows he had seen, people he had met. “By the way,” he concluded, “I saw your old friend Gladys Powell. She was having tea at Bingham’s with some cadet. She was looking fine, and asking if I’d heard from you.”
Out with somebody else! A little anger stirred Paul. That was not his idea of marriage. He still retained his early views about that. Eileen might have been right about that dispute of theirs when they were youngsters. But once one was married. No philandering with other people.
He smiled suddenly at himself. What was the use of being so bitter—when he was so far away. Much more sensible to think only of the pleasant things. He turned to re-reading his home letters, eager to find escape again from reality.
"pILEEN had come back to Glennville for the summer holidays. It was pleasant to be home once more, to have relief from teaching, to be free from facing each day a roomful of restless youngsters, who were eager to be outside, who required infinite tact and patience. Glennville, of course, seemed a little strange—so few of the boys she knew were around—but it was restful to wander again about the familiar streets, to go down to the river, to stroll past the old collegiate.
Where was Paul now? she would ask herself and shudder, wondering for a fugitive moment if he were even now lying face upward in the bright sun. But that couldn’t be. The tide of war had turned at last. After those months of disaster, each day a terrifying tale of defeat, the pendulum had swung the other way. Scarcely to be believed at first, but beginning to seem like truth now. And Paul couldn’t be killed. God wouldn’t let him be killed now when at last one might dare to hope that perhaps this war would end. No, Paul couldn’t be killed.
But what she wondered, would happen when he did come back? Would he tell her he cared for her? Had he forgotten that terrible time two summers ago? He must have forgotten. He must know now that she hadn’t meant it, that she cared for him. Cared for him ! No use beating about the bush with herself. Loved him. Hadn’t she as good as told him so, there when he came to see her on last leave?
But how she had suffered! She hadn’t dreamed that one could suffer so. That time in Toronto, and that other girl Lila had told about. How her heart had felt! As if someone had taken it out and were squeezing it, tearing at it, putting it to intolerable misery. She shivered at the memory of it. She didn’t want that again.
And yet, could she be sure he loved her? How strangely he had acted when she had gathered her courage, and had told him she hadn’t meant it, that she would die rather than hurt him. Why hadn’t he taken her in his arms? She remembered the look in his eyes. Surely that meant something. Surely that meant that he wanted her, that he longed for her.
And so she wavered, now on the peaks of hope, now in the trough of despair, waiting for his letters, reading them again and again, searching out phrases to feed her hope and fear. Yet outwardly she gave no sign of the turmoil in her, went about with a quiet sureness, concealed her thoughts even from her sister, filled her letters to Paul with cheerful, comradely news, forced herself to patience, put on each day more and more of maturity.
And then one night just as holidays ended, she came in from the river, her arms full of water-lilies, to find Etta all excitement.
“Look, Eileen, here’s your friend, Paul Honey’s father, in jail !”
Eileen put down her lilies, walked over, took the paper, read it through, the words blurring before her. There was quite a bit there. Words Mr. Honey had used:
“Would Christ tell our boys to join up?”
“I guess Germany thinks she’s just as right as England.”
“War to save democracy! It’s just a scrap between the big bugs.”
Who, she wondered, had laid the information? She ran down the column. “Mr. Noice,” the paper stated, “whose son was in the army, had complained to the authorities.”
Noice!—Eileen thought—Noice! Hadn’t Paul said something about him?
She put down the paper and turned to leave the house. “Where are you going?” Etta asked.
“Down to the jail,” Eileen told her.
“Why, you can’t!” Etta exclaimed, but Eileen was already gone.
"pRIGHTFULLY conspicuous Eileen felt, walking into the jail. She had to ask twice before Mr. Reynolds comprehended her and understood that she was asking for Mr. Honey.
He was in there sitting on a chair in his cell, his face looking, she thought, as if it were frozen into a mask. He did not look up, did not pay any attention to her.
“Mr. Honey,” she said. She had to speak again, “Mr. Honey.”
He looked up.
“I’m—I’m Eileen Ainsley.”
A little light came into his eyes. He looked at her steadily, looked her up and down. “You’re all right,” he said to himself, “Paul’s made a good choice.”
For an instant Eileen felt like disclaiming it, like saying that she did not know whether she was Paul’s girl. But why dissemble, why beat about the bush? She had, she told herself, made Paul hers. If suffering could make a person belong to you.
“What are we going to do,” she asked, “to get you out of this?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, sitting back heavily in his chair, “as how I want to get out.”
“But you must,” Eileen urged. “There’s Mrs. Honey —and Paul. Can’t you see?”
Mr. Honey still sat there. “It’s what you get,” he said to himself, “for telling the truth.”
“They can’t keep you in,” Eileen argued. “Can’t say you’re not patriotic. Not with—” she realized the irony of it, “not with Paul in the army.” She was throwing her words, she realized, against a stone wall.
“He got me,” Mr. Honey went on. “Richard Noice did. Patriotic! His son! Drafted!”
Eileen had an inspiration. “Are you going to give up?” she asked him. “Let him beat you?”
Mr. Honey slewed round on his chair, faced her. Crisp lines carved themselves on his jaw, about his nose and mouth.
“We’ll figger this out,” he said.
' I 'HE months of the war had passed on over raui, hardening him, leading him more and more to think only of this present day, to deaden his imaginings. Into the monotonous stalemate he had thought so ceaseless, had burst like a thunderbolt the great March retreat. Monotony again, but monotony of a different sort, monotony when one reached the peaks of heroism, plumbed the depths of human courage, monotony of days and nights of anguished fighting, of falling back, of feeling awakened in one a stubborn determination to stick it, not to let those beggars win. Paul found in himself again a surge of that early idealism of his, of those dreams when Thermopylae had seemed so glorious, and Senlac. For this was a last stand, too.
This had passed and the advance had begun, a toilsome, hectic business. But, for the first time, Paul, like the others about him, felt uplifted by hope; dared to imagine the end of it all; felt that same impatience with which he had waited for Christmas when a little boy. So eager for it to come, so resentful of Time. He began to feel more afraid of death now. It would be so tragic to be killed just before the war ended. He found that he had to screw his courage up, and to force himself to go on. After all, though, it was Kismet. If he was to live —But if he did—Home and his own folks. He permitted himself to dream about it at times, and then one day, his captain came up to him.
“Letter for you, Honey. I brought it down.”
From home he saw, and moving farther into the shade of the ruined wall under which he was sitting, settled himself for a comfortable moment or two and opened his letter. The first sentence brought him up.
“They’ve arrested Dad,” Jean wrote, “for treasonable talk. You know how he’s always been going on about the war. Folks got excited, got mad at him. Those farmers whose sons were drafted got patriotic all of a sudden. Old Noice egged them on. They arrested dad last Tuesday. He’s in jail now, and Mother’s had a stroke. It’s terrible.”
“Terrible!” Paul was frantic. The humiliation of it —jail—his father. How he’d feel it! Shut up there—just for having his own opinion. That was what war did. Made folks hysterical, cruel. Like religion. And his Mother—he turned to that again. A stroke ! Why, that was serious. If she should die before he got back!
If he were home—he clenched his fist. Think of those country folk! How casual they had been about the war, and now so patriotic. The hypocrites! How funny folks were. Like sheep. How they had flocked around Dad when old Noice had been beaten there about that farm. And now the other way. Old Noice, too. He was getting his revenge. He could imagine him frowning, drawing those tufted eyebrows of his together, enjoying himself. Old Noice— getting in his way at every turn, hurting him. First Nettie and now Dad—and Mother. If he had him here.
He jumped up.
“What’s the matter, Honey?” his captain said, mildly surprised, but Honey did not hear him. He was off down the road in great strides. Funny folks, these Canadians, the captain thought. Just as you think they’ve got themselves trained they blaze out again. Jumping up like that. So unusual.
The first shock over, Paul read the letter again. Something he had missed caught his attention.
“Your friend, Eileen Ainsley,” Jean wrote, “went to see dad in gaol. She’s got a lawyer for him, too. And she was out to see mother. I liked her. We went down the lane to the old house and had a great chat.”
Splendid of Eileen, Paul thought. Splendid! If only—he thought of Gladys, frowned, dismissed her from his mind, and went back to Eileen and Jean.
Talking in front of the old house.
Eileen would understand now, he felt, something of how he’d lived, how he’d been brought up. The new house wasn’t so different from Eileen’s home. But the old loghouse—
How many times as a youngster, he reflected, staring out over the splinters of a churned-up wood, he had sat in the kitchen of that old house looking out the door down the path that led to the lane. Cherry trees blossoming in the lane, lilacs in bloom along the wall of the woodshed, red peonies ablaze, a hummingbird flashing among the honeysuckle.
If he could sit there again—or tear out of the house and down the stone steps into the cellar, pick up one of those apples from the earthern floor—there was a tang, a mellowness to those apples.
That woodshed, too, he remembered its mossy roof, could amost feel himself sliding down the sloping incline on the far side of it to land on the pump stand, could feel himself being licked, in the little back porch which linked the woodshed to the kitchen, for tearing his pants—dusk of evening and lush green grass in the backyard around the leach filled to the brim with sodden ashes while the strap stung.
Sleep—ah, that was the place to sleep— up there in his little attic room with the wind through the corn outside and the straw of the old tick pricking his skin.
Yes, Eileen ought to understand more about him now. The old house was scented with memories.
“What’s the use,” it was almost as if some one was speaking to him. “There’s Gladys.”
He cursed, flinging down the letter.
■pILEEN walked slowly from the court■*—' house up the sidewalk toward her home. There was a little smile on her lips. Mr. Honey had been acquitted.
They had been so grateful, she reflected, Mr. Honey and Jean. Although she hadn’t done much. Judge Crawford would have dismissed the case anyway. The war hadn’t warped his judgment. He had been so kind to her, too, when, greatly daring, she had gone in to see him before the trial. So kind to her, sensing, she had imagined, her nervousness. So reasonable, too. He was a nice old man.
No, she hadn’t done much. It had been Judge Crawford—and Paul’s decoration. That had helped. Although why that should make a difference.
She had reached the railroad track. How ugly it was, cutting through the town like this. It made you think of ugly things, of violence, of heat and anger. Like —she was frowning a little as she crossed —like that terrible old man who had stirred up all the trouble. She felt a little chilled. What horrible people there were in the world. Hate and anger. They seemed to come out from him like a physical power to strike you in the face. How he had shouted! How he had raved when the judge had dismissed the case. And his face when Judge Crawford bawled him out, told him he had no business letting his spite carry him so far. His face—like Moses when he saw the golden calf. She dismissed him from her mind. What would Paul think, she asked herself shyly, when he heard about this? Would he? She felt, she realized,very tender toward Paul after seeing his home and his folks. If she had only realized all this two summers ago. But surely it would be all right when he came back. When hë came back—Her face was bright, her eyes dreamy as she went up the path to her home.
MR. HONEY stood on the feedingboard of the threshing-machine. Sheaf after sheaf dropped in steady rhythm from his fork on to the self-feeder, to march mechanically in endless procession, top first, to meet the whirring knives and the mangling teeth of the concaves. About him in Bob McAdoo’s barn the air was thick with dust and chaff and dirt. The figures of his fellow-workers in the mow behind him were but dimly visible. Through the open door of the barn came gust after gust of raw October wind, came gust after gust, too, of laboring sound, as Hank Bradley’s engine tore in spasmodic bursts at the quivering belt that ran from the flywheel to the threshing-machine.
It would soon be quitting time, Mr. Honey judged, with a practised glance at the gloom in the barn. Almost too dark now. But Hank was behind with his threshing, and he’d keep on as long as he could.
The sheaves dropped monotonously from his fork. This wasn’t a hard job, but it needed skill. You had to put the sheaves just so, had to keep the pace just right, or the machine would choke like a chicken that’s taken too big a mouthful of mash. But once you were on to it, there was time to think. And, somehow, he had been thinking a lot today. That wasn’t queer. He had always found time to think when he was working. But usually it was planning, what he’d do tomorrow, or next week, or next year. And today he had kept thinking about the past. Perhaps it was because this was one of the last threshings he’d be at. Now that he’d sold the place and was retiring to Stanton. Or perhaps it was because he was getting old.
His eyes moved from the feeder to look for a moment out the barn door to where across the fields to the south, the walls of his house loomed vaguely among the
trees. It was a place, he told himself, as he turned back to his work, that anyone could be proud of. Good clean land, good fences, good buildings. Quite different from the ramshackle farm to which he had come so many years ago; more years than he liked to remember.
He stopped a second to blow his dirty nose with a grimy finger, and went back to his feeding. Queer to think he was going back to Stanton. That was where he had first come when he had landed from England. Around there he had worked out with old Billy Virtue, with little Moses Wetherell. Hot days in the harvest field binding sheaves by hand, among the stumps, keeping up to the cradle, racing desperately that day with Dicky Rundle. He could remember yet how that afternoon sun of so long ago had shone on him as he turned the corner, and how it had flooded his face, given him new power to let out another reef and win. Men betting on the issue. His gnarled hands gripped his fork-handle tightly. How proud he had felt. Full of youth and strength.
And now he was going back to Stanton. Getting old, well-off—he’d give, he told himself quietly, all his money to have a bit of that youth again.
Stanton ! That was where he’d seen Mary first, where he had courted her, brave in his knee-high leather boots with the red tabs on them, and his bright corduroy shirt. Walk four miles back to Moses’ place. Pretty silly at first, too; him a hired man and she a farmer’s daughter. But it had worked out all right. They couldn’t say he hadn’t given her a good home, made her comfortable.
Even jail—His fork was turning a little. He spat on his hands, got a tighter grip. Even jail. It was hard to think quietly of that. That stroke of hers. Richard Noice—the tines of his fork bit viciously into a sheaf—how he’d like to—He fought down his anger. It was over now. No use getting het up. What couldn’t be helped—But the way folks had swung in behind that old man. Still he couldn’t blame them for that, he told himself, a trifle bitterly. Folks were like sheep anyway—one jumps over a fence and you can’t stop the rest. They were nice enough now, too, to him since the judge had given Richard Noice that calling down. Paul’s decoration, as well. But Richard Noice, maybe he ought—
A flicker of movement caught his attention and he looked out the door again to see a rig coming down Bob McAdoo’s long lane toward the barn. He
wondered fleetingly who it could be and squinted at the horse. But the gathering dusk defeated his eyes, and he went back to his task, noticing for an instant the whirr and clatter of the machine, the spasmodic bursts of clamor from the engine. They’d have to quit soon.
Paul. How bitter he’d been about him joining up. But it was better so, better than being drafted. Better to go willingly before you had to go. To be dragged away! And the war would soon be over. It looked like it, and Paul would get home. A warm glow came up in him. It wasn’t so bad being old—when one had sons.
The whistle screeched in crescendo. Almost immediately, it seemed, the belt began to slacken speed, to flop its bands together spasmodically and awkwardly like a young crow trying to fly. Mr. Honey stuck his fork in the mow and clambered down laboriously from the feeding board. The belt had already been thrust off the flywheel of the engine, and he helped Bob McAdoo pull it into the barn to lie there useless until the morrow. As he straightened up he saw that the rest of the farmers had got out of the mow and had formed into a little group at the barn door blowing their noses, coughing out some of the dust from their lungs, making jokes. His jaw tightened a little, but there was no hint of his feeling as he walked leisurely over to them, no suggestion that henoticed the momentary silence that marked his coming. Perhaps he sensed that it was not hostile silence.
“How’s the missus?” one of the men asked him.
“Gettin’ along nicely, thanks,” he answered.
“I guess she’ll be all right, time you get moved,” Bob McAdoo suggested.
Mr. Honey agreed and all of them began to move down the barn hill with that slow wide-gaited walk that comes from fatigue. The rig he had seen driving in, Mr. Honey noted, had reached the engine, and the driver, still sitting in it, was talking to Hank. As they came near his voice rose.
“Said ’ee’d thresh me next, Hank Bradley,” it stormed. “Promised me, ’ee did.”
Richard Noice! Mr. Honey stopped. The group stopped, too, seemed to shrink away from him, seemed to leave him standing alone. A pulse hammered in his temples. He stepped up to the buggy, and put his hand on the dashboard.
“Promised me,” Mr. Noice shrilled, and then as he realized Mr. Honey there, his words broke off in mid-career. For an
instant the two men looked at each other through the dusk. The silence was intense. Then with a panic-stricken movement, old Noice started to gather up his reins, to chirrup to his nag. But Mr. Honey reached out swiftly, decisively, caught the reins, held the horses back. In the group of strained expectant men about, Bob McAdoo held his breath. Was he going to bash him?
“Let me be, Jim Honey.” Noice’s voice, high and quavering, broke the tension. “Let me be,” and he tore at the reins.
Grim, like Fate itself, Mr. Honey held on, watched the old man’s futile struggling cease, watched him shrink back on the seat. For a long moment he watched him. You could have heard a pin drop. And then abruptly his hand dropped. There was a swish of a gad and with a startled leap the horse sprang forward. Mr. Honey watched it go.
No one spoke as the group went up to Bob McAdoo’s door. No one said a word, but they all stepped back to let Mr. Honey enter first.
ARMISTICE! Crowds thronged and ■LN eddied in the streets, bells rang, whistles blew, klaxons hooted. Berlin, London, Paris. Over in Toronto a hysteria-drunk mob made the day hideous forgetting all of them how years before with high hearts and a feeling of adventure they had shouted their lungs out when war came.
Near Valenciennes, Paul sat trying to comprehend it all. There was no one around. Everyone was away, bumming rides to town, rushing from unit to unit, getting drunk on vin blanc, cognac, rum, anything that came to hand. Discipline was forgotten. Paul, too, had had his fling at it, had tried to celebrate, but somehow it was all too vague and unreal. A great emptiness ached in him. Armistice ! It seemed as if nothing mattered, as if the end of the road were reached. He ought, he told himself, to be drunk with joy at the thought of it, at the knowledge that war was over, at the realization that soon he would be on his way back home to his folks, to Gladys. But somehow he could not sense it, couldn’t rise to the heights. Instead he sat in the depths, as if the bottom had dropped out, as if there were no ground on which to stand. What did anything matter? he asked himself. He felt let down, fallen to pieces. His flesh was dead, his feelings drugged, as in a dream when one sees some monster approach and can only sit and wait. Those grasping, clutching claws of his boyhood, nightmares they had, he told himself, laid hands on him now. He felt, sitting there on a box, arms dangling, as if he could never get up from that place, could never feel again.
He made an effort, and put his chin in his cupped hands. Dad and Mother! Down in Stanton now. What would it be like to come to that strange place? How could he call that home? When his dreams took him back every night to the farm, to the place on which he had lived so long. How could he think of strangers inhabiting it? He would, he told himself, never set foot on it again. And Mother! “You must expect to see a great change in her.” Jean had written. He couldn’t imagine that. He couldn’t think of her like that, but only as he had known her, brisk, tender, nothing ever too much for her to do for him.
Had she, he wondered, ever suspected anything about him and Eileen? She must have, he supposed. They all had for that matter. Taking it for granted that she was his girl, that he would be married to her when he went back. Especially after the way she had helped Dad. How could he tell them about Gladys—even if the first marriage was kept dark? How could he bring a stranger to them? And Gladys, he knew, in himself, would not fit in. “Country folks,” he could hear her sneer, while Eileen—What a mess life was!