KISS FOR SALE
MARTINA S. YEITER
CHATTER of friendly tongues and a child’s high voice and laughter. Coffee simmering fragrantly in a big pot on the flat-topped heater; and husky, weather-browned youths quickening pink-cheeked girls with easy laughter. The little schoolhouse was crowded this crisp autumn evening, and later there would be games and the swinging high of slim-waisted maids in the mazes of the square dance.
But now there was a lull, for Carl Anderson, the jovial auctioneer whose big voice had boomed in the farmyards for fifty miles around, had mounted the platform and stood by the table of gaily decorated boxes, shaking suggestively the soft hat in his hand.
And now, Leila, wall you draw a name, please?”
. Little Leila Graff, shy from her own stage fright and importance, stumbled over the one step, finger in mouth, and her round china-blue eyes never left the face of the big man as she fumbled among the slips of paper.
Anderson took the name, glanced at it, smiled slightly and bellowed: “Karen Strom!”
“O-o-h !” came faintly drifting through the packed throng, and all eyes turned to a tall girl in a big apron who sorted spoons at a back table.
And “O-o-h !” echoed Karen even more faintly, a slow’ crimson flooding her fairness, and she looked around shyly as the women gave her a gentle shove. “Go on up, Karen. It’s you !”
Slowly the girl slipped out of the enveloping apron and went down the aisle, her startled eyes moving over the crowd, and a smile parted her lips as her gaze rested on a big blonde man toward the back. A softening gaze as she saw the goodnatured joking to which the others were subjecting him.
“How’ much money you got, Emil?”
“You’ll have to go high, boy!”
Kindly banter, for in the length and breadth of Sunnyside community, all knew that Karen was Emil’s girl, and none intended to come between.
“Well, well!” boomed the auctioneer. “What’s a kiss worth tonight?”
“Fifty cents,” piped up old Grandpa Kropp, and the room rocked with laughter.
“Two and a quarter.”
Up it went, the starry-eyed Karen listening tremulously.
“Five dollars,” came the steady voice of Emil Jansen.
Then the young voices grew silent, for it was a shame to force Emil up when everyone knew the two of them had been engaged for years, and Emil had had so much expense. And, of course, Emil would keep on bidding.
“Only one kiss sold tonight, boys,” urged the auctioneer. “If you don’t get this one you’ll have to rustle your own.”
But though there was a titter at his witticism, no one spoke.
“P'ive dollars from Emil. Going—”
It was an alien voice from the side. As one, the neighborly gathering turned, amazed, to the little group of strangers who had come down from the resort on Kike Sapphire. They saw a tall, dark man leaning slightly in conversation with a patrician young woman, but they did not understand the rapt shine of his eyes, or hear his muttered observation, “What a beauty! She’s like a Greek statue.” Nor the woman’s amused reply: “More like a female Viking, to me.”
Karen gasped as her glance flew to the strange face. 11er startled eyes broke away, bridging the room to the suddenly tense face of Emil Jansen. Chaos threatened, for wasn’t this
kiss which was auctioned each Hallowe’en something of a tradition in the Sunnyside country school, and didn’t it carry unwritten rules? If a betrothed girl were drawn, always the men ceased their bidding in reason, for the buyer of the kiss acquired with it the girl’s lunch basket and the privilege of escorting her home.
There was a hush over the room with its cornstalk decorations and its amiably leering Jack-o’-lanterns, for here was unexpected drama. None of the suddenly interested men had ever noticed too closely the fiowerlike softness or the spun-gold hair of Karen, for they were fair and loyal, and Karen w'as Emil’s girl. Who was this man who challenged Emil’s right?
"Seven !" called Emil, his mouth a straight line.
"Eight,” smiled the stranger.
Emil hesitated, his eyes darkening, and Karen tried to shake her head at him, for all knew Emil could ill afford such a price, even if the stranger did not. Incredulously her eyes rested on the latest bidder.
“Nine!” said Emil.
"Ten,” answered the stranger promptly.
Only then did Emil turn away, and to the auctioneer’s pleading he answered honestly:
“That’s all I have.”
“Oh, bid up. I’ll loan you a couple,” rallied a half-dozen voices.
But Emil shook his head.
“I can’t be borrowing money,” he said.
All the Sunnyside folk found themselves wondering w'hy they had never before really seen the shy loveliness of Karen. So long had the girl seemed as someone older, so long had her young years assumed burdens, they had almost forgotten in their matterof-factness that she was still young and fair. Why, when you stopped to think, it was only nine years since Karen's immature shoulders had taken up the burden of the six younger Stroms—Karen and young Mons, the brother wdio was two years older.
Not over fourteen could she have been at the time.
Though she was startled, Karen’s golden head held proudly, for she was a thoroughbred and not for the world would she have gone back on the Hallowe’en tradition of the bartered kiss, no matter who bid it in. And oddly enough, she felt both irritated and gratified with the stranger. Though of a surety she loved Emil, to a girl who had been pledged for so long, w-ho had never known other than one man’s respectful kiss, it was exhilarating to be singled out thus by a distinguished stranger.
"And—” finished the auctioneer, “sold to—”
"John Belmont,” then supplied the dark man.
A warm little breath escaped Karen's 1 ii>s as John Belmont advanced, and none but the group of strangers heard Elsie Belmont’s tolerant, “Well— really John!”
John Belmont laid a new bill on the desk, placed a light hand on Karen’s arm, and was about to guide her from the platform when the auctioneer halted him.
“Oh, no, Mr. Belmont. We want to see that kiss.”
Scarlet swept Karen's face, but she held her ground, for it was the custom, in truth, for the successful bidder to claim his kiss—usually long and lusty—before the laughing throng. An eminently honest proceeding, though somewhat lacking in subtlety.
"It’s not compulsory, I take it?” questioned the man. “Why—well —no—”
"Very well. I prefer my kisses in private.”
Amid covert chuckles John Belmont guided his newest purchase to the little knot of his own kind, so extremely evident as they stood looking on with unconcealed amusement. Karen couldn't remember the names, none except, “My sister, Elsie Belmont,” but a sense of dowdiness swept over her as she saw Elsie’s humorously appraising eyes on her simple voile dress. The easy sophistication of the group, their expensive appearance, made the country girl ill at ease, for she could not know that the blue of her gown matched the larkspur blue of her eyes, and the whole of it was a picture the like of which was seldom seen.
Then followed a pleasant babble, while boxes sold and cups and spoons clattered and babies cried. The strangers from Lake Sapphire, their curiosity appeased, took their departure; all but John Belmont, who remained to share Karen’s lunch and join in the breathless swings of the dance. But it was a working community, and five or six o’clock comes early.
For a little moment Karen slipped away and found Emil leaning outside the door— a slouched and sombre giant who had bought no box and entered into none of the evening’s fun.
“I’m sorry,” Karen said. “I—couldn’t help it.”
“I know,” Emil darkly replied. “You going home with him?”
“I—guess so. He asked me. I couldn’t refuse.”
“No-o, I guess not.” Emil, too, knew the code.
"I’ll run over tomorrow, Emil. I’ll bring you something.” She smiled and squeezed his hand tightly and slipped back into the crowd.
But even the thought of Karen’s “something” (and without exception it would be delicious; cinnamon rolls or a pie or a bit of the roast with browned potatoes) failed to lift Emil’s depression as his moody eyes followed the slim blue figure. He walked over to his ancient car of sturdy but common make and started it with a vicious rattle and bang; and the blankness of the seat beside him, as he swung into the road and joggled toward home, smote him with a painful thrust.
^\NLY A BIT later Karen and John Belmont took their places in his long, low car, and he bundled Karen snugly in the big soft robe which was blue in parts to match her eyes.
And how peculiarly pleasant it was beside this beauty of a girl with the richly gold hair. The man found himself wondering about her as they skimmed through the dim radiance of an almost full moon that hung like a lopsided lantern in the purple-black sky.
“Tell me about yourself, Karen.”
The half-smile Karen allowed herself was mildly incredulous—as if anyone could be interested in her uneventful life.
“There’s nothing at all to tell. I live on a farm and keep house for my brothers and sisters. My parents are dead. With the flu, nine years ago.”
“Yes. I wras fourteen then—the oldest girl.”
Appreciative eyes rested on her full-blown beauty, and John Belmont smiled, for not many girls of his acquaintance would own up to twenty-three so naively.
“As if a rose could shut and be a bud again,”he murmured. “What was that?” said Karen, only half-catching the murmur.
“Nothing . . . That’s been rather hard on you, hasn’t it?” “Oh, not specially. Someone had to do it.”
Before he left she learned who he was, too; who his people were. Something to do with flour. Ah, yes, she remembered now—Belmont Milling Company on more than one sack of sliding white substance which she had dumped into her bin. And it thrilled her, for rich he must be, and his easy grace bespoke the many things she had always wondered about and never had. She wondered, too, what he found in her. Karen could not see the blossoming vitality shining from her dark-fringed eyes, a fresh eagerness which
intrigued this man as freshness always does those who see so little of it.
In the beginning he had been drawn by her classic beauty, for Belmont was a lover of the perfect in all forms; but now he found there was something vital about her, too, like a magnet that pulls pliant steel.
The feel of her firm young shoulder sent a tiny shock through him. so that he smiled shamefacedly to himself and wondered if, out of all the girls of his acquaintance, he would now lose his head over a simple farmer lass with no sign of culture. It amused and startled him, and he thought, too, of the persistent bidder.
“Who is this Emil?”
“A friend. A neighbor.”
“Anything to you?”
“A friend,” she repeated, not knowing why she evaded the issue.
“That’s that, then . . . May I come again, Karen?”
“Why—I guess so.” The notes of her voice died away in surprise. Of course she shouldn’t have given the permission, she thought, contritely—there was Emil—but somehow it had seemed to tumble out of its own accord.
The big car was softly purring before the Strom gate. On one side loomed the cottonwoods, with the house a dark blotch in the shadows behind; while, on the other, rustling cornstalks whispered.
The man slipped an arm around the tweed-coated figure while he bent slightly, smiled quizzically.
“What about my kiss. Karen?”
Her face raised slowly and white moonlight spilled across it.
“It’s yours,” she answered simply as a child.
I f he had expected coy argument he was mistaken ; but he hesitated momentarily, studying the clear oval outlines of her face. Neither invitation nor denial rested therein.
He pressed his lips to hers.
“Why—Karen—” said John Belmont, raising his head and searching her eyes, for response had been there, and the paleness of her face was greater than the Hooding moonlight warranted.
Karen knew that she had returned his kiss, and was shocked and shaken; and she stirred uneasily.
The man sprang out at once and helped her to descend, and even in her confusion she remembered that Emil always let her climb out by herself.
John Belmont pressed her hands.
I m coming again, Karen ...” Dark eyes on blue . . . “Karen -do you know you’re beautiful--and angel-sweet?” He smiled at her wide eyes and his hands squeezed tightly. “Good night, Wild rose”—so softly as to be almost a whisper.
Karen waited in the porch shadows, listening to that diminuendoing hum, watching .that firefly speck of light wink out on the smooth white road. And her hand fumbled on the doorknob, and slowly she went through the kitchen. From the long window above, a cascade of rmxmlight tumbled down to meet her as she ojxmed the hall door. In her attic room the low jutting angles of the roof looming dimly at side and top she lit the small lamp and leaned against the little stand, the while her deep eyes studied her face in the ten-inch mirror . . . Beautiful? Karen had never thought of her looks; there had been too much else to occupy her mind. She knew she was not homely, but further than that she had not delved. Now her hands came up, fingers pressing against soft red lips, for the memory of a kiss was still tingling upon them. But as she looked, the hands spread ruefully and the spell was gone. For they were roughened hands, reddened, and they plainly showed her myriad tasks, so that she smiled as she gazed and sighed: “He couldn’t have noticed my hands.” Yet her thoughts wondered, and the smile lingered within . . . Wild rose . . . In her workaday world, it was Karen’s first genuine compliment.
TN THE MORNING she was all contrition, for by then she A was ashamed of her treacherous thoughts, and her lingers flew as she sorted over the few fresh peaches she had hoarded in the cellar from her last canning. Deftly the “something” for Emil took form, slicing the peaches carefully, judging the sugar, placing the dough just so.
And then the cobbler was done, and she said to her young sister, Christine:
“Honey, you finish the dinner. I'm going to take part of this over to Emil. Can you manage?”
“Sure,” said the girl with a careless laugh, for her two older brothers and the two younger ones didn’t bother Christine greatly. Now that Jennie and Hilda were married, Christine had an enviable existence, for the boys babied her pleasantly and were thoughtful and generous. And Christine knew how things with Emil. She had been at the basket social the night before, and secretly had hoped her own name would be drawn. It would have been fun. Sixteen and pretty, made of Christine only a gay and unspoiled sweetness, so that the boys flocked about her as bees around a flower.
As Karen picked her way across the bit of fall plowing along the lower side of the pasture fence, her eyes swept over the trim farm appreciatively and her heart leaj)ed warmly. Something vital always throbbed up from the
deep fresh loam into her own very deeps, for Karen was of the soil, an integral part of its changeless joy. And she thought gratefully, too, of the loyalty and sturdy dependability of the boys, of how they had paid for the land with untiring toil and the sacrifice of young years, and could now call it their own.
Then she reached Emil’s land, and just as trim it was, just as richly productive. She could see Emil unhooking his team in a distant field, and the sunlight caught flashing in her hair as she sped to the house, for Emil would still have his own dinner to prepare.
Swift fingers started the fire and put on the coffee, and she sliced some cold potatoes she found in a kettle on the back of the stove. If she could only teach Emil not to leave things in the waning heat of the fire. The heart of her sank as she glanced around the cheerless nxmi, and she sighed, for it was not at all the same since Emil’s mother had gone. She shook her head. Say what you please, a house needs a woman.
The coffee was bubbling when Emil came in, and the potatoes sizzling merrily.
“Well?” he said in unaccustomed embarrassment, and oddly his glance rested upon her as he slowly dipped some water from the reservoir into the basin and carried it back to the bench. All Emil’s movements were slow.
Karen said: “I brought you a cobbler.”
He washed with meticulous care and wiped for a long time on the none too clean towel; then stood gazing out the door toward the fresh plowing with troubled eyes.
Karen slipped a persuasive hand in his.
“Come and eat, Emil.”
His arm went around her, and she looked up at him and saw the tremor in his face.
m “No-o. Why should I be angry?” He bent his
head to hers with a quiet kiss, for passion had so long flared within him and been denied that it had begun to steady.
Karen felt queerly on the defensive as she slipped into the chair opposite him.
Silently and strangely Emil stared at her from across the table.
“Did—he—kiss you?” at last he asked.
Confusion deepened the roses in her cheeks, and her eyes fell.
“Nevermind ...” A stolid man, Emil, slow of thought and action, and this problem of a potential rival was something he had to work out in his mind. For some time he ate potatoes and cold pork doggedly. Finally he said:
“When will you marry me, Karen?"
“Oh Emil!” Her breath caught. T can’t fora while.” “You’ve said that for a long time,” and the watching girl saw his face tighten. “But things are different, now. Christine is at home and can do for the boys. And I need you here, Karen.”
“Christine is such a baby.”
"Two years older than you, when you tixik over the care of them all,” he reminded her, and the words came almost harshly.
Karen had never felt so hesitant, so unsure.
“I just can’t, for a while. Christine couldn’t do for them all. She isn’t like me, Emil.”
Emil had risen with that same slow, sure movement and circled the table, and now stood at her side.
“Is it that man last night?”
Karen got to her feet, while a strange panic stilled her tongue. Was it, in truth, John Belmont? How foolish! It couldn’t be. She scarcely knew him. though she had to admit he was strangely disturbing. But likely he would never come back.
Emil was insisting doggedly:
“I could see he was stuck on you. And -he kissed you.” “It—was paid for,” defended Karen’s small voice.
Hurt made Emil bitter, and reckless beyond his usual slow'kindness. He sneered:
“Well, men do pay for kisses sometimes, don’t they?” Anger flared like a brand in the girl’s white face, and all at once she wanted to strike this big man who had loved her since childhood. For what right had he to such remarks? Emil was quickly contrite.
“Forget it, Karen,” he said earnestly. “I can’t help it if it bums me up. You know I’ve always loved you. And I’ve waited so very long.”
Because of the truth of his words, her anger diminished. For it had been a long time seven years -and at the thought of it Karen drew an unsteady breath.
“If—you’ll just wait, Emil—”
“Wait!” he violently exploded. ‘That’s all I’ve done is wait ! I’m fed up with waiting, Karen.”
Bitterly he smiled down at her, and roughly he flung her hand away as he strode out of the door.
"Emil!” called Karen then, and her blue eyes were wide. “Aren’t you going to eat your cobbler?”
But Emil glanced back only briefly and said, the bitterness still tight around his heart:
Continued on page 57
Kiss For Sale
Continued from page 7—Starts on page 5
“I don't think I care for any.”
A gasp like a sob was her only reply. If the man had but known, it was the crudest hurt he could have administered.
IN A DAY less than a week, John Belmont came again. Because Karen’s heart was so sore, she welcomed this alien and his fluent easy talk. Karen wasn’t happy these days. The near quarrel with Emil had upset her more than she would admit; and since then Emil had not walked over in the friendly dusk, as he was wont to do, to sit for an hour or so and talk of familiar things. And she missed those quiet visits, and his steady arm around her and his big hand over hers.
She tried to salve her bruised spirit with John Belmont’s presence, for, she reasoned, wasn’t it a feather in her cap to attract a man such as he? Emil need not think she could get no one else.
The moon shone with a metallic glitter this frosty night, touching the whitened world with a Christmasy tinsel and transmuting the ghost-fields of corn into a swaying silvery sea.
And John Belmont kissed Karen again when he took his leave.
Karen seemed to forget, now, that she had told Emil she could not be spared at home. For Emil had hurt her terribly. No word on Thanksgiving. No word on Christmas. There he stayed in his cheerless home, locked in his stolid silence—and how could she know he was eating his heart out for news of her, and too proud to ask? Mons occasionally saw him; Christine had talked to him in town. He seemed always the same. A bit higher went Karen’s bright head. No word on Christmas—no gift—after seven years !
And so she told John Belmont she would marry him.
Asking her was a noble gesture on his part. Karen did not know of the struggle he had had with his people; could not dream of Elsie’s storming when he had told them of his intentions.
“I tell you, it’s impossible, mother. The girl’s a total loss.”
“Did you see her eyes?” John had answered casually. “You couldn’t help but notice her eyes. Larkspur eyes, mother.” “Blue eyes—my gosh!” was Elsie’s derisive reply. “Oh, the girl’s pretty, I’ll not deny that. But I’ll wager she’s never had a manicure in her life, and that she eats with her knife. You’d never accept her, mother.” “Maybe she’ll have to,” was John’s quiet observation.
Elsie turned on him in disgust.
“Oh, you fool dauber!” she raged. “You and your pretty faces ! Why do we have to stand him, mother? He’ll just disgrace us all.”
But John told Karen none of these things. And yet she wondered, as he held her close and she tingled with that strange sensation she did not recognize as merely the thrill of conquest, why it was she thought of Emil just then, and his patient hurt eyes. One should not, logically, be thinking of a discarded suitor at all. But she was finding that Emil could not so easily be forgotten.
John took Karen to meet his people—his father and mother, studiedly gracious but aloof; Elsie, who took no pains to conceal her dislike. For all she lived only three hours away by the motor road, Karen had seldom been to the city, and she was vaguely terrified, while her pulses chugged a bit faster and the wild roses bloomed more riotously in her milk-white cheeks.
And down in her honest heart, Karen was worried as well. These people—they weren’t her kind. Could she ever learn to be like them? The personal maid who appeared ever and anon at her door with polite questions of service, sent her into a panic, for she had not the slightest idea of what the maid should do. And the big bedroom depressed
her, with its satin-striped walls and its stately furniture and its bed with a canopy like a sinister cloud hovering above it.
It was in this regal house, on the third floor beneath a skylight, that John took her one day to a big bare room where were his most sacred possessions. And suddenly Karen understood that occasional rapt look on his face, his eyes glowing with a strange burning fire.
“Why, John! I—didn’t know—you
“I—just try,” he corrected.
From one canvas to the other she passed, and her eyes were admiring and astonished, for Karen was no critic.
“They’re—wonderful !” she breathed.
But John Belmont knew. “No.” His head moved, not his eyes, as he watched her flushed face, and a bitterness rose in his voice. “I’m a ham painter. If it wasn’t for flour, I’d starve to death. But how I love beautiful things!”
His glowing eyes rested upon her with an almost gloating possession. And as he studied her with an artist’s eye, if not with | an artist’s skill, a cold wind whipped through , Karen and she stirred with a strange new ! dread. And now he turned her face so that he could view her profile, and suddenly she felt naked and afraid.
“You’re the most beautiful woman I have ever seen,” he said simply. “If I could just get that on canvas ...”
She tried to push aside this dreadful knowledge she felt assailing her. Was this why he loved her—wanted her—because she had a beautiful body and a rose-petal face and hair like gold in the candlelight? John had told her these things. Was transient beauty to be her only hold upon this man? Then what of that certain time in the future when beauty must grow dim? The strange panic grew within. In her mind’s eye the years stretched ahead, stark, like vast blank pages open to receive the record of a magnificent experiment doomed only to failure.
“Do you love only beautiful things?” she ventured unsteadily.
“Of course. Who would worship ugliness?”
“But things—and people—grow old.” There was something like calmness in her voice, but her eyes were widened and her hands clenched as they rested at her side.
To which John replied, even as his eyes again burned with that queer light she so quickly found herself understanding:
“And that, my dear, we’ll hope will be a long time—for you.”
“Yes; but when it does come ...”
Mounting uncertainty caught and held j her suspended. She felt trapped, and her ! frightened eyes begged for an assurance she could not find in his. His light laugh seemed suddenly mocking to her sharpened senses.
“Why borrow trouble, my dear? ‘Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. . . ’ ”
Karen wras wise, for all she was not cultured. For her there could be no halfmeasures. And suddenly her thought hurdled the miles to Emil, who so curiously still seemed to be her anchor in all uncertainty. No pretty speeches fell from Emil’s lips, chary he was even with his caresses; yet she knew that his quiet strength could be leaned upon through all the years to come. Emil loved her. Not her eyes, or her cheeks, or her chiselled nose, but the real Karen—the woman back of it all. And John did not; she could not imagine John loving anything not fresh and new'.
And all at once nostalgia and a flooding fear swept her, and she longed for Emil’s big grip around her and the sound of his steadying voice. From the wells of her memory rose her own cozy kitchen, and the squeak of the pump at the edge of the sink, and the smell of clean suds as she plunged her arms into the wash of a Monday morning. Simple w’ere Karen’s needs, after all—work with a song in it, dotted Swdss curtains and geraniums at the windows, a cat curled up in
! the kitchen rocker. She knew, though she liad no words for this knowledge which had come to her with a shocked finality, that she would never make a “spun-glass” wife.
CNN'LY AS THE local jogged slowly toward home, after her unreasoning but unobtrusive flight, could Karen shrug her shoulders philosophically. By that she would have known, if she had stopjxd to analyze, that her heart was still secure. Impersonally she thought of Mrs. Belmont’s brittle courtesy, more strained day by day, of Elsie’s open hostility. And quite suddenly she knew, with a relieved surety, that it did not matter at all. She thought:
“Where would they be with their big houses and mills if Emil and Mons and all our kind didn’t furnish them with the wheat? They’re only finishing what we’ve already done the biggest and hardest share of. People like us have the right to be the real aristocrats. The others depend on us entirely.”
Karen caught a ride home with a neighbor and it was snug in the long bobsleigh with its bed of fragrant hay and its many robes, for when the snows are heavy and the drifts pile deep, a bob and a team of greys come into their rightful place once again.
Oh, but the air was iced wine, and the snow lay so softly on the fencetops and roadside weeds, and Johnson’s duck jxmd was a sheet of blue glass as the children shouted, and skates rang in time to their shouts, while the bob slid on in the deep shining ruts. Now Emil’s farm drew apace, silent and restful in its soft winter padding; and there, just beyond, was the home of the young Stroms, and its lane of gaunt cottonwoods seemed reaching out eagerly and drawing her in.
All at once Karen laughed aloud and was startled, for the bright sound seemed a vital thing in the stillness of the perfect day. For Karen knew now she was happy, and the reason for her happiness was that she was going home. Home. She moved restlessly, eagerly. She wanted to be on her own land. At once. When the lands gave up their richness and the fields of wheat stretched and mounted in the sun, she felt that all her life she would grow with them, for the land was herself, and all the sweetness of earthy tilings was in her.
And so it was that a flushed younger sister looked up from her supper preparation as Karen burst into the kitchen. And it was not with entire joy that Christine greeted her sister, for had she not done well in this, her first attempt at housekeeping, and had not the boys been loud in their praises? And the praises were due for pretty Christine, for her kitchen was spotless as Karen’s own.
“Why—why, Karen! You home? Why didn’t you stay out your visit?”
"I—got homesick, 1 guess,” Karen faltered, eyes sweeping the dear familiar room. "How did you get along, honey?”
“Just fine!’’ Bright young eyes sparkled. “Gee, Karen, it’s keen to do it by yourself! 1 had cherry pie last night for supper. And : I’ve got a ham roasting in the oven. And an I apple cobbler cooling in the pantry. And— the boys said I did swell. Why—why didn't ! you stay a little longer, Karen?” j Karen guljxd and stared, while a queer ! little feeling chased up and down her spine.
I Why, Christine was feeling just as she did, j years ago; why, maybe Christine could do ! things about as well as she could, after all. Her young enthusiasm tugged at Karen’s j heart. She understood. She knew that ! warm little glow which only comes into Ix-ing through service to others.
Then quickly Karen stood up, and her hand grojx'd for Christine’s shoulder, and her heart was so full she could not find words to empty its rising flood.
“Honey, you—like to do for the boys? i You—really think you can look after them here?”
"I should say I do! It’s swell. I never ¡ realized before. The boys are keen. They appreciate things. Mens said 1 did things pretty smooth.”
“Then—then—give me part of the cob-
bier, Christine. I’m going to take a little over to Emil.”
“Karen !” Christine stared and swallowed twice. “Karen—really?”
“Why not?” -
“Oh—oh, gee, Karen ! What happened to John?”
“Nothing. I just don’t belong there, so 1 came home . . . Why, what’s the matter, baby?”
“N-nothing.” Christine was still staring, mistily now, over the big lump that insisted on rising in her throat. “Then—you’re going to marry Emil?”
“Well, I’m—just going to take him some apple cobbler, now. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” And Karen defiantly shook the traitorous tears from her eyes.
No. Nothing wrong in the world ! Blindly Christine brought the cobbler from the pantry; blindly, through happy tears, she cut out a portion and set it before her sister. She thought of Emil’s unhappy eyes as she had seen them the night before; Emil, whom everyone loved, who had walked over through the snow to find out, indirectly, their news of Karen; and Christine's young face was like sunlight after April showers as she pictured his own when Karen walked in, so radiant and shining. Ah, well ! The younger girl shook her head, happy though mystified still. A few quarrels, more or less. Lovers had to have them some time.
VWTIAT MATTER if the drifts were Yv deep? Karen could follow in Emil’s tracks. What matter if the last red glow rested like a living fire in the west but the cold pressed down with a definite force? Emil had a fire waiting, for thick black smoke spiralled to the sky in the clear still air.
Karen drew a deep breath, and a happy sense of belonging enfolded her in a rosy glow. Without knocking, she pushed open the door and stepped inside, shutting it quickly against the crouching cold.
Slowly Emil turned from replenishing the fire. The poker he hung carefully on its nail behind the stove. His face tensed as the identity of his visitor broke upon him, but he made no further movement.
Karen said: “I brought you a cobbler.” “That’s—nice.” The words seemed
Her eyes swept the once cozy room in mounting disapproval. Like a gentle reproach, a forgotten look lay upon its former hominess. Dust filmed its surface. Someone had taken the curtains down. Mother Jansen’s plants, green all summer and fall with Karen’s care, were either dried or frozen. Pity caught in her quickened breath.
But suddenly she smiled, and her arms curved upward in a splendid arc. Here was work to do! Here she was needed! A soft laugh rose in her long white throat. A tall girl, Karen, so alive and poised, with her uplifted arms like a bird about to take flight. Her eyes might have been star-dust, and her hair caught up from the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end.
“I’ve come back, Emil. To stay.”
“Back —to me?” His throat muscles were tight, and the words came hard.
“Yes. . . If you want me.”
“If—I—want you?” She lowered her eyes before the sudden glory in his own. With one long sure sweep, his big grip held her tight. “You know I do, Karen. You—mean— you’ll marry me—soon?”
From his flannel shoulder came the muffled reply, hardly more than a movement of the sunny head. But it was satisfying, and her hair against his cheek sent his ; pulses to chugging. He gripped tighter, but I no words would come. At last:
“That’s good”—as ever saying the wrong thing—“you'll be here for the spring work.” Larkspur eyes raised. She smiled in amusement, though dimly she realized his very inarticulateness was the measure of his devotion. But as she read in those steady, air-washed, sun-faded eyes that which his helpless lips could not form, Karen never missed the pretty speeches which Emil might have made.