He shared a secret with the marigolds and wild geese. But would the one girl he wanted understand?
JULIUS SCHERNHAUSER stood in the doorway of his whitewashed log house and looked south and east toward the long low hills beyond the Libau marshes. They stood out, dark and pineclad, against the level sweep of northern bushland.
Julius breathed deeply of the sweet evening air. How good it was! It smelled of young poplar leaves and the faint scent of the first saskatoon blossoms The frogs were beginning to croak in the water of the ditch down by the road. A song sparrow piped in the willow brake beyond the fence of poles. A line of ducks went swiftly across the bush almost touching the trees.
It would soon be time for Herman to be coming with the cows. They were wandering more these days, searching for new, succulent growth. Last night they had even strayed away back into Bessler’s swamp, behind the section line. Julius seated himself on the bench by the side of the door, waiting. He could hear the kettle singing on the stove and supper was ready on the table. When Herman came they would eat. He sighed and thought that it was good to sit a while and rest. Maybe the old women were right. Maybe he was getting a little old.
Actually Julius’ appearance was deceptive; most people, looking at the premature grey at his temples and in his evenly clipped mustache, thought of him as around 40, at least. And the people of Libau had come to think of him as a little queer because he did not mingle with the settlement’s bachelor crowd, going to dances, getting tight or playing curds in the back of Jensen’s store. His very quietness placed him apart from the convivial natures of his neighbors. The old women said that Julius was young in the body but old in the head.
In reality, Julius Schernhauser was 34.
Now, sitting there, his back against the log wall of his house*, he did not look old. The coarse denim jacket and overalls could not hide the lean hardness of his body, nor could the quietness of his face detract from the light in his eyes, the light which boys of lb have and some old men who have lived and not tired of doing so. The old women didn’t notice that. They forgot about being young in the heart.
Besides, Julius was in love.
Once, years before, he had had an unhappy love affair and since then he had not looked at another woman; but now ’Tillie Laffinger had come back from living with her grandmother, and Julius was in love again. Or maybe he was really in love for the first time. Even the fact that Tillie Laffinger knew nothing of his feelings in no way altered his inner happiness.
He sat there in the freshness of the evening, waiting for Herman, watching the soft fading of the sunset beyond Bessler’s swamp and letting his mind wander through pleasant uncompleted dreams. Like a boy. And behind him, beyond the open door, the kettle sang a warm cheery song. In the willows below the barn a lone whitethroat piped a sweet cadence across the silent dusk.
He wondered what the old women would say if he should start taking out Tillie Laffinger. In his mind he waved an airy hand — that for the clacking tongues of all the old women of Libau.
But what of Tillie . . .? Tillie was young perhaps 21 or 22. She liked to dance and laugh, and everywhere she went people liked her and were attracted to her. Would she like him, Julius Schernhauser, the dreamer? Perhaps to her also he would appear dull and a little queer. He didn’t dance and he liked being alone. Maybe he was crazy to think that she might care for him.
And yet, in many ways, Tillie was different to the other girls of the settlement. She didn’t use much lipstick or yammer all day about the boys, and although she liked to have fun, she worked hard helping her mother. Most of the girls had no time
for helping at home. They were too busy dancing and getting a man. She was slim too, and round, like a slender young birch tree, and she had the look of kindness in her face and in her deep brown eyes.
The widow Hildebrande said that Tillie could have a dozen men only by a look. But she didn’t seem to care —at least, Julius had never known her to favor any of the boys. He wondered again if she would want to go out with him. And a quick fear touched him—would he have the nerve to ask her?
It would be nice to have a woman in his house. It had been empty too long, just himself and Herman, the orphaned son of his older brother. Herman had come to live with him five years ago, when he was
17. Now he was old enough to be thinking about a home of his own.
And perhaps Tillie would understand the things which moved him so deeply, the beautiful things, like a bit of Chopin on the radio. He had never known anyone who could see the beauty of a bluff of young poplars at the sunset, or in a red and yellow dawn across a field of oats.
He sat there in the declining light, pondering these things, dreaming his long dreams.
Presently, as the sun went down behind the ranks of poplars, Julius heard the mellow tones of a cowbell coming through the bush. Soon a big red and white cow appeared around a bend in the road. Three others followed in leisurely procession. These were his milk herd.
Some distance behind came another, with a newborn black and white calf blundering at her
side. Driving the two was a young man in faded overalls.
Julius watched them come up through t he gap in the pole fence. The young man grinned at him. He was handsome and brown-faced, hardly more than a boy.
“Hi, Uncle Julius,” he called. “A fine bull-calf for selling in the fall.”
“Sure, Herman,” returned the older man. “Maybe he will get us a radio, eh?” He wondered if Herman considered him old too, and a little crazy. He suddenly hated the hoy’s stupid habit of calling him “uncle.”
Herman went on toward the barn and Julius got up from the bench and went in to make coffee for the supper.
It would he strange for Herman, he thought, to have a woman in the house. Anyway, he would get
better meals. Ah, hut wasn’t Tillie the fine cook already!
Then Herman came in and scrubbed at the sink in the corner.
“I talked to Adolph Berg on the road,” he said as he dried his hands on the rough towel hanging behind the door.
“What news?” Julius asked, pouring the coffee.
“Nothing much. Only Sadie Becker’s getting married at last. They’re having a big dinner next Sunday.”
“She’s been a long time chasing a man,” Julius grunted.
Herman laughed, taking his seat at the table.
“You sure don’t like women, do you?”
“Some women—” Julius replied, shortly.
They ate in silence, and when the meal was over they rolled cigarettes and sat back before going on
with t he final chores of the day. Outside they could hear the spring song of many frogs. At length Herman broke the long silence.
“Can I have the colt tonight, Uncle Julius?”
“If you don’t run him too hard,” Julius replied. “Tomorrow I am going to the village, and will need him.”
He wondered vaguely as to where Herman might be going. But he didn’t ask. Maybe to Bjornson’s or to Berg’s for a game of cards, or to Bessler’s to see the girls. Herman had been away two or three nights a week for the last month or so, but Julius had never enquired as to where he spent his evenings. The boy was old enough to know his own business.
After Herman had gone and the dishes were washed Julius walked outdoors and stood there tasting the sweet, cool air and looking at the soft sky and the warm stars. From somewhere high in the darkness he heard the blended voices of wild geese coming down the skyways. And as always he felt a queerness in his throatGod, to be free like that.
He wished then for someone with whom to share this moment, a faint loneliness in him. If Tillie were here would she understand?
Standing there, he remembered about the wedding at Becker’s. Everybody would go, he knew, including Tillie Laffinger. Maybe he could ask her to go with him— but. he wondered if he’d dare. Besides, she would be going with her brother, Otto — it. would look silly for him to ask her. Maybe she would only laugh at him.
When t he high calling of the geese had faded into the north, Julius turned slowly back to the house, feeling its empty loneliness close about, him. Putting out the light: he went to bed for if he intended to get an early start for the village, he would have to he up wit h the dawn.
The roads were still soft, and Julius Schernhauser, driving home from the village, let the colt pick his own way through the ruts while he sat quietly in the buggy, soaking up the warm afternoon sunlight. It was beautiful May weather. All the ditches were full of brown water through which the grass was shooting up. The pussy willows were yellow with pollen and in every timber covert migrant, birds sang in happy unison. And in all the wet low meadows along the timber edges, marsh marigolds made splashes of pale yellow.
Julius loved these golden (lowers. And he had come to call this last fortnight of May the “marigold spring.”
Now that the marigolds were out., it was surely spring. Julius leaned back in the buggy and felt supremely happy. It was good just to be alive.
Then, as he passed the corner of Becker’s farm, he caught up to Tillie Laffinger walking along the road. She had come out of the lane which led up to the Widow Hildebrande’s. The Widow Hildebrande was not well and Julius guessed that Tillie had been washing for her, and baking some bread and little cakes for Sunday, and setting the house in order.
Julius stopped and said, “Good day. Will you take a ride?”
She smiled, looking up at him.
“Why sure, Julius. Thank you.” And she climbed up beside him, carefully, so as not to brush the muddy wheel wit h her coat.
Julius let the colt plod along the wet black road, feeling that, with Tillie sitting there at. his side the sweetness of the spring had suddenly become sweeter and softer.
“You have been to the widow Hildebrande’s?” he remarked, at last.
“Yes,” she replied. “She is still weak and can’t do any heavy work. She’s too old for heavy work, anyway.”
“I should go and see her,” Julius said.
“Yes, you should. She’d like to see you,” she replied, her eyes meeting his with a frank smile. “She t hinks a lot of you. She says you’re sensible.”
Julius glanced at, her quickly and smiled in what he felt must seem stupid embarrassment. He could find no ready reply and the conversation lapsed into silence which Continued on page 37
lapsed Continued on page 37
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lasted almost as far as the first corner of Henry Laifinger’s farm.
“Next week I think I’ll start Herman to seeding,” Julius said then, looking off across old man Lajoie’s alfalfa field. “Your father, when does he start?”
“I don’t know,” she replied. Her glance rested briefly on his face, then passed on to take in the panorama of fields and meadows and bush.
“It is time now. The frost is all out of the ground; and today I have seen the geese going all day into the north. And in the meadows there are marigolds—like gold the faeries might have left . .
Her glance came back to his face, wonderingly, with a thrill of gladness momentarily in her eyes.
“Did you see them too?” she asked. “I love them, those marigolds; they seem so friendly and so near to you, as if they understood how long the winter has been and want to tell us something to make us happy. And I like to hear the wild geese - it seems to me that they know something . . . something about living . .
Then, perhaps noting the quick eagerness in Julius’ eyes, she paused, blushing a little.
“Gee,” she said, laughing defensively, “You’ll be thinking that I’m silly—”
“No,” he replied. “I didn’t know you felt like that.”
“I didn’t know that you did, either.”
Then they were at Laffinger’s gate and he had to stop the colt and help her down from the buggy. She thanked him with a warm smile and turned away. And only then did Julius remember the wedding at Becker’s, berating himself for not having mentioned it. Perhaps there would not be another chance. He doubted if he’d have the courage to go to Laffinger’s and ask her, even though she liked to see marigolds in the marshes and to hear geese flying north. Anyway, her brother would be going.
One evening toward the end of the week, Julius decided to go for the cows. That was Herman’s chore, but he was seeding the oats and would not be finished until late.
He climbed the pole fence behind the log barns and set off through the' bush, following a cow trail. As he walked he listened to the spring sounds of the woods the long sad calls of the high flyers, a chickadee scolding him with a nervous flirting of syllables. From the tops of spruce trees whitethroats fluted across the dreaming bush.
Just before the cow trail came out upon the road which ran back of the Schernhauser and Laffinger farms, Julius came upon Tillie sitting on a fallen tree by the side of the path. She had a great double handful of marigolds and, because her feet were bare, Julius knew that she had been wading in some wet meadow for the great yellow cups. Her shoes hung around her neck by the knotted laces.
“Wading in the slough!” he exclaimed. “You’ll get your death of cold.”
“Oh, no,” she replied, wiggling her toes and laughing at him over the mass of yellow flowers. “It isn’t so cold. I’m just sitting here waiting for my feet to dry.”
“Then I will sit and talk to you. Herman can wait for his supper.” And he seated himself, smiling at her, but still a little surprised at his own audacity.
Laboriously he made conversation. He admired her marigolds and told her about the whitethroats piping back in
the swamp and talked of how good the weather was for seeding. She told him that her mother was not feeling well and that her brother had cut his foot with an axe and was not able to put any weight on it.
Then he held her flowers while she put on her shoes, turning her back so that he might not see her roll the stockings above her knees. Just as they were about to part, a sudden thought came to Julius.
“Ach, now!” he exclaimed, “If Otto has cut his foot you will have no way of getting to Sadie Becker’s wedding . . .”
She shook her head.
“Well, could I call for you, maybe?”
Thoughtfully she dug in the soft earth with the toe of her shoe. Then she gave him a quizzical look.
“Do you mean that, Julius?”
“Sure, I mean it—” he replied, hoarse intensity in his voice.
Then she raised her head and gave him a clear, straight look into his eyes.
“Yes,” she said, “You can, if you want to.”
And she turned down the road, walking swiftly, leaving Julius to stumble on his way through the swamps. It took him a long time to find the cows and it was nearly dark when he reached home. But that didn’t matter. Not even Herman’s grumblings about supper mattered.
On Sunday Julius told Herman that if he wanted to go to Sadie Becker’s wedding he would have to walk. There was a little trouble with Herman over that.
“I don’t see why,” protested the youth.
“It’s enough,” Julius returned sharply. “I said you must walk. I want the buggy and the colt for myself.”
“But why? There is room on the seat for two.”
“Sure,” returned Julius with measured patience. “But 1 am giving Tillie Laffinger a ride to the wedding. Otto has cut his foot with an axe and must stay home.”
Then the boy gave Julius such a look that the older man shivered involuntarily, remembering his father, old Julius, with the anger on him. With a muttered curse Herman flung out of the house, slamming the door behind him. Julius watched him take the shortest way through the bush to Becker’s. After a while he too was ready to leave.
Tillie was waiting for him when he drove into Laffinger’s yard. He was a little relieved to learn that her father was not at home. Mrs. Laffinger came bustling out to see them off.
It was a beautiful day, golden with warm sunlight and rich in the smells of new growth and the sweet singing of birds. They didn’t talk much as they drove along. Julius thought that it was wonderful that they didn’t have to talk, that they could find companionship in silence and in the understanding of the beauty about them.
Nearly everyone had arrived at Becker’s by the time Julius turned the colt in at the gate. The ceremony of marriage had been performed earlier in the day at the Lutheran church and now the guests were gathering for the Wedding supper and the celebrations. Several buggies and democrats were in the barnyard, and even one big farm wagon. Horses were tied to the poles of the corral at the end of the long low barn. A few cars were run up at the end of the house.
People stood about in groups, the older ones together, the younger ones off more by themselves. One hilarious group was gathered about Sadie Becker and her new husband. Sadie still wore her veil.
A few of the older women were laying
the supper on long tables under the
As Julius and Tillie drove into the yard it seemed as if everybody stopped whatever they were doing and looked at them. Julius caught glimpses of faces which he knew—old Grandmother Becker in her chair, gazing at them with a toothless grin; the widow Hildebrande, in a white kerchief, with a big cake in her hands; smug Mary Bessler whispering to a boy from Poplar Park. He thought he saw queer grins on the faces of some of the men.
He drove up to the door and helped Tillie out of (he buggy. He saw that her face was fiery red. Then he escaped to the refuge of the barnyard. He wondered if any of the women would say anything to Tillie.
It took him a long time to put the colt in the barn and it was almost time for supper when he came up to the house. He was outwardly calm again. In the rush for seats nobody paid any attention to him.
He looked around for Tillie and saw her at last over on the edge of the happy throng. Her glance caught his and she gave him a little smile, lie went across and stood beside her. Some of the people looked at them curiously and Julius hoped that Tillie did not notice. Ach, but wouldn’t he like to wring their necks! Hadn’t they a right . . . ach, himmel!
He saw Herman in close conversation with a strange girl. Something told Julius that the girl was no good. He wished Herman would stay away from her.
At last the bride and groom were seated and those that could found seats around the tables. Those that were left had to wait. By the time Julius and Tillie had finished eating, dancing had started in the house. They danced a waltz together and then stood in a corner and watched the others.
The dancing was in the main room of the house. In the other room the bride and groom sat behind a table on which was a large bowl with the bridal veil thrown across it. Into this the guests threw money, both silver and bills. Every time anyone threw in money old Adolph Becker doled out a glass of wine.
Freddie Becker took Tillie to dance and Julius was left alone. He wandered about, talking with one here, another there.
Sometime after darkness had fallen, Julius went down to the barn to see that the colt was all right. He was taking his time coming back, enjoying the beauty of the night and the still, soft stars. 'There was no need to hurry. Tillie was having a good lime; so was everybody else. 'There was nothing for him to do but talk to the old women or stand around and watch.
'Then, just as he wras about to round the corner of the house, a voice on the other side brought him up short in his tracks.
“. . . Julius Schernhauser? Yeh, did you see him though? Gosh, I never thought I’d see him taking out a girl.”
It was a girl’s voice, high-pitched and mirthful.
“Yeh, an’ a girl like Tillie Laffinger!” chimed in a boy’s voice. “Now, if it had been Greta Bjornson . . .”
There was a laugh at that, out of which came another voice.
“Sure, Greta Bjomson—she’s just about his speed, an’ she ain’t ever had a boy friend either. But Tillie Laffinger
she’s young an’ she likes fun. Boy, I bet old Julius figures he’s some heart smasher, eh?”
Julius felt the slow, hot blood flow through him. So, they thought Greta Bjornson was his speed and did they think he was the cne to put up with
her simpering foolishness and homely, vacant face? He felt like stepping around the corner and knocking their dumb heads together.
“Say,” a new voice broke in, “How old is Julius anyway?”
“Gee, 1 dunno. He must be 40, I guess.”
“Old enough — he’s got grey in his hair anyways.”
“An’ Tillie’s hardly more than 20 — gosh, I bet she’s proud of her new boy friend.”
The girl with the high-pitched voice laughed again.
“Yeh, an’ speakin’ of boy friends, look who’s here . . . Hello, Herman.”
“Oh, hello, Herman,” a boy said. “We were just talking about Julius. I guess he’s gonna show us all how to take out the girls, eh?” He laughed. “Not so, Herman?”
“Aw, nuts!” came the reply.
Julius stood in the darkness waiting. Wouldn’t Herman, at least, stick up for him?
“Heck, didn’t she come with him today?” a boy demanded. And the rest laughed and a few echoed the question. At which Herman gave a harsh, derisive laugh.
“You’re all crazy, I tell you. He’s just crazy with the spring an’ all . . .”
“Yeh, an’ it looks like he’s got your girl with his craziness.”
“Yeh, that’s what you think,” Herman’s voice was sarcastic. “She just don’t want to hurt his feelings, that’s all—you know how Tillie is. Do you think she’d give him a care—an old slowpoke like him? Why, he can’t even dance!”
“Mebbe you should go an’ dance with her then, Herman,” someone suggested slyly. “Give her a break—”
Herman laughed. “Bud, you got something there.”
Julius didn’t wait for any more. He turned and walked quickly away. He walked for a long time, through fields and bush and along a wet soft road under the stars.
He thought that it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been anyone else. But Herman his own nephew. He had never thought that Herman would make fun of him. And if it could be true if Tillie really was Herman’s girl He thought of several things, remembering: of Tillie sitting by the cow trail that evening had she been waiting for Herman? Of Herman’s black looks of the morning; of his many nights away from home during the past month or two.
Maybe there was a lot he didn’t know about Herman.
And he w'ondered—had Tillie been really interested in his own love of beautiful things, or had she merely humored him, w'hile underneath she laughed at his eccentricities?
At last he turned about and retraced his steps. When he came to the gap in the fence before the house he stopped. He found a place on a pile of logs and sat down where he could look through the open door into the room w'here they w'ere dancing. He could see Tillie dancing w'ith Herman.
When the dance ended couples came out at the door and trailed off into the starlit gloom. Herman and 'Tillie came slowly down toward the gate. They stopped not more than 30 feet from where Julius sat. Herman’s arm was around her waist and he seemed to be arguing with her. Her head was beni, listening to what he said. Julius hardly dared to breathe. '1 hen they came on slowly, still talking.
They were almost upon him now. Ach, but they would see him anyway. He got to his feet and they stopped and looked at him in the darkness. Tillie gave a little smothered exclamation.
“Heck!” Herman said. “Is it you,
Uncle Julius? What’s the idea sitting out here alone?”
“I don’t dance,” replied Julius, hoping that his voice sounded even a little like it should. “1 came out here to have a smoke. I think 1 will go home now. You can bring the colt, Herman, when you come.”
He turned away. When he reached the gate he looked back at them.
“Herman,” he said, “maybe - maybe you could be after fetching Tillie home too.”
Julius had reached the corner beyond Becker’s when he heard the sound of hurried footsteps behind him. He stopped. Then Tillie Laffinger had him by the arm. She was breathing hard and almost half-sobbing.
“Ach, now,” he said roughly. “What is wrong with you?”
She seemed not to notice what he said but stood staring at him in the gloom. He could see the pale oval of her face and the deep wells of her eyes.
“Why are you running away?” she asked.
“I’m not,” he said. “I’m only going home.”
“And don’t you want to take me home —?”
He shook his head impatiently. “Where is Herman?”
“1 sent him back.”
“Sent him back!”
“Yes, yes—can’t you see? I don’t want him.”
“No, I don’t understand. I heard some kids talking . . . they said that you were Herman’s girl.”
“Oh, don’t be silly!” she exclaimed, lifting herself so that her face was close to his. “You big foolish, can’t you
see how wrong they are?” Somehow he got his arms around her. He could feel her warm breathing just under his ear.
“You’re a slow one,” she murmured. “I thought you’d never sec.”
“I didn’t know,” he said. “Then Herman never meant anything to you at all?”
“Not a little,” and she leaned back and looked into his eyes in the darkness. “He used to come over all the time and hang around; but—well, he’s just too young for me.”
The night and the stars stood over them. In the water of the ditches the frogs were singing. A whippoorwill called uncertainly from the gloom of a poplar bluff.
“You’re not afraid about me?” he asked. “Not afraid that 1 will be too old. I’m not really not in years. But I’m a little dull, maybe - I don’t dance or anything.”
She laughed softly, shaking her head. “I know but you can’t spend all your life dancing.”
After a while she said, “Herman wants to go away to the city. Maybe you should let him go.”
“Yes,” Julius said, thinking that it would be better with only Tillie and himself in the house.
Out of the eastern swamplands then came a faint sound, a blending of many voices. It came closer and passed overhead, a summoning call that seemed to come out of the hollow heavens. Wild geese. They stood and listened until it was gone.
There were only the two of them together, and the road ran before them, straight and clear under the stars. ★