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VI 


DUST IN HIS EYES

SUCH was the relationship of the Wades when one morning the mail brought them a letter from Sharon, Illinois. Rose wrote that she was miserably unhappy with her step-mother. Could she live with them until she found a job? She had been to business college and was a dandy stenographer. Maybe Uncle Martin could help her get located in Fallon.

"Of course I will, if she's got her head set on working," was his comment. "I'll telegraph her to come right along. Might as well wire the fare, too, while I'm about it and tell her to let us know exactly when she can get here."

Mrs. Wade looked up quickly at this unusual generosity, yet she was, she realized, more startled than surprised. For had not little Rose been the one creature Martin had loved and to whom he had enjoyed giving pleasure? It had been charming--the response of the big, aloof man to the merry child of seven, but that child was now a woman, and, in all probability, a beautiful one. Wasn't there danger of far more complicated emotions which might prove even uprooting in their consequences? Mrs. Wade blushed. Really, she chided herself sternly, she wouldn't have believed she could be such an old goose--going out of her way to borrow trouble. If her husband was moved to be hospitable, she ought to be wholly glad, not petty enough to resent it. She would put such thoughts out of her mind, indeed she would, and welcome Rose as she would have wanted Norah to have welcomed Bill, had the circumstances been reversed. It would be lovely to have the girl about--she would be so much company, and the atmosphere of light-hearted youth which she would bring with her would be just what Billy needed. By the time Rose's answer came, saying she would arrive in two weeks, her aunt was genuinely enthusiastic.

"I wonder," said Martin, "if we could build on an extra room by then. If she's going to make this her home, she can't be crowded as if she was just here for a short visit. I'll hunt up Fletcher this afternoon."

Mrs. Wade's lips shut tight, as she grappled with an altogether new kind of jealousy. To think that Martin should delight in giving to an outsider a pleasure he had persistently denied his own son. How often had she pleaded: "It's a shame to make Billy sleep in the parlor! A boy ought to have one spot to himself where he can keep his own little treasures." But always she had been met with a plausible excuse or a direct refusal. "I suppose I ought to be thankful someone can strike an unselfish chord in him," she thought, wearily.

"You'll have to get some furniture," Martin continued placidly. "Mahogany's the thing nowadays."

"It's fearfully expensive," she murmured.

"Oh, I don't know. Might as well get something good while we're buying. And while you're at it, pick out some of those curtains that have flowers and birds on 'em and a pretty rug or two. I'll have Fletcher put down hard oak flooring; and I guess it won't make much more of a mess if we go ahead and connect up the house with the rest of the Delco system."

"It's about time," put in Bill, who had been listening round-eyed, until now actually more than half believing his father to be in cynical jest. "We're known all over the county as the place that has electric lights in the barns and lamps in the house."

"It hasn't been convenient to do it before," was the crisp answer.

Bill and his mother exchanged expressive glances. When was anything ever convenient for Martin Wade unless he were to derive a direct, personal satisfaction from it! Then it became a horse of quite another color. He could even become lavish; everything must be of the best; nothing else would do; no expense, as long as full value was received, was too great. Mrs. Wade found herself searching her memory. She was positive that not since those occasions upon which he had brought home the sacks of candy for the sheer sunshine of watching little Rose's glee had anyone's pleasure been of enough importance to him to become his own. All this present concern for her comfort talked far more plainly than words.

This time, Mrs. Wade admitted bravely to herself that her jealousy was not for Billy. It would have been far easier for her if she had known that Martin was thinking of their coming guest as he had last seen her thirteen years before. He realized, thoroughly, that she must have grown up, but before his mental eyes there still danced the roguish little girl he had held so tenderly in his arms and had so longed to protect and cherish.

He experienced a distinct sense of shock, therefore, when, tall, slender and smartly dressed, Rose stepped off the train and, throwing her arms impulsively around his neck, gave him an affectionate kiss. The feel of those soft, warm lips lingered strangely, setting his heart to pounding as he guided her down the platform.

"Uncle Martin, you haven't changed a bit!" she exclaimed joyously. "I was wondering if I'd recognise you--imagine! Somehow, I thought thirteen years would make a lot of difference, but you don't look a day older."

"You little blarney," he smiled, pleased nevertheless. "Well, here we are," and he stopped before his fine Cadillac.

"Oh, Uncle Martin," gasped Rose ecstatically. "What a perfectly gorgeous car! I thought all farmers were supposed to have Fords."

They laughed happily together.

"It's the best in these parts," he admitted complacently.

"It's too wonderful to think that it is really yours. Oh, Uncle Martin, do you suppose you could ever teach me to drive it?"

"It takes a good deal of strength to shift the gears, but you can have a try at it anyway, tomorrow."

"Oh-h-h!" she exulted, slipping naturally into their old comradeship.

Martin took her elbow as he helped her into the car. The firm young flesh felt good--it was hard to let go. His thumb and under finger had pressed the muscles slightly and they had moved under his touch. His hand trembled a bit. The grace with which she stepped up gave him another thrill. He was struck with her trim pump, and the several inches of silk stocking that flashed before his eyes, so unaccustomed to noticing dainty details, gave him a mingled sensation of delight and embarrassment. It had been many a day, many a year, since he had consciously observed his wife. She was too useful for him to permit himself to be influenced by questions of beauty into underrating her value, and he was a respectable husband, if not a kind one. They had jogged on so long together that he would have said he had ceased to be conscious of her appearance. But suddenly he felt that he could not continue to endure, for another day, the sight of the spreading, flat house-slippers which, because of her two hundred and forty pounds and frequently rheumatic feet, she wore about her work. Moreover, it was forcibly borne in upon him just what a source of irritation they had been. And they were only as a drop in the bucket! Well, such thoughts did no one any good. Thank heaven, from now on he would have Rose to look at.

They settled down beside each other in the front seat and he was aware that her lovely eyes, so violet-blue and ivory-white, were studying him admiringly. Here was a man, she was deciding, who for his age was the physical superior of any she had ever met. He was clearly one of those whom toil did not bend, and while, she concluded further, he might be taken for all of his fifty-four years it would be simply because of his austere manner.

Martin sustained her scrutiny until they were well out of Fallon and speeding along on a good level road. Then with a teasing "turn about's fair play," he, too, took a frank look, oddly stirred by the sophisticated touches which added so subtly to her natural beauty. From her soft, thick brown hair done up cleverly in the latest mode and her narrow eyebrows arched, oh, so carefully, and penciled with such skill, to that same trim provocative pump and disconcerting flash of silk-clad ankle, Rose had dash. Hers was that gift of style which is as unmistakable as the gift of song and which, like it, is sometimes to be found unexpectedly in any village or small town.

Martin drank in every detail wonderingly, with a kind of awe. All his life, it seemed to him, for the last thirteen years positively, he had known that somewhere there must be just such a woman whose radiance would set his heart beating with the rapture of this moment and whose moods would blend so easily with his own that she would seem like a very part of himself. And here she was, come true, sitting right beside him in his own car. For the first time in his whole life, Martin understood the meaning of the word happiness. It gripped and shook him and made his heart ache with a delicious pain.

"It's hard to believe," he murmured, "such a very small girl went away and such a very grown up little woman has come back. Let's see--twenty is it? My, you make me feel old--but you say I haven't changed much."

"You haven't. A little bit of gray, a number of tiny wrinkles about your eyes"--the tips of two dainty fingers touched them lightly--"and you're a bit thinner--that's all. Why you look so good to me, Uncle Martin, I could fall in love with you myself, if you weren't auntie's husband."

It was an innocent remark, and he understood it as such, but its effect on him was dynamic.

"You always were as pretty as a picture," he said slowly, his nerves tingling, "if a farmer's opinion is worth anything in that line."

This was twaddle, of course, and Martin knew it. Rather it was the city person's point of view he was inclined to belittle. He had the confidence in his superiority that comes from complete economic security and his pride of place was even more deeply rooted. Men of Martin's class who are able to gaze, in at least one direction, as far as eye can see over their own land, are shrewd, sharp, intelligent, and far better informed on current events and phases of thought than the people of commercial centers even imagine. There is nothing of the peasant about them. Martin knew quite well that dressed in his best clothes and put among a crowd of strange business men he would be taken for one of their own--so easy was his bearing, so naturally correct his speech.

Something of all this had already registered in Rose's mind. "Come on, Uncle Martin," she laughed, "flatter me. I just love it!"

"Very well, then, I'll say that you've come back as pretty a little woman as ever I've laid eyes on."

"Is that all? Oh, Uncle Martin, just pretty? The boys usually say I'm beautiful."

"You are beautiful--as beautiful as a rose. That's what you are, a red, red rose of Sharon--with your dove's eyes, your little white teeth like a flock of even sheep and your sweet, pretty lips like a thread of scarlet."

"Why, Uncle Martin!" exclaimed the girl, a trifle puzzled by the intensity of his quiet tone, and stressing their relationship ever so lightly. "You're almost a poet."

"You mean old King Solomon was," he retrieved himself quickly. "Don't you ever read the Bible?"

"I didn't know you did!"

"Oh, your old Uncle reads a little of everything," he returned with a reassuring commonplaceness of manner. He was thunderstruck at his outburst. Never had he had occasion to talk in that vein. He remembered how blunt he had been with the older Rose twenty years before--how he had jumped to the point at the start and landed safely; clinched his wooing, as he had since realized, by calling her his Rose of Sharon, and now he was saying the same thing over again, but, oh, how differently. If only he were thirty-four today, and unmarried!

"You always were the most wonderful person," beamed Rose, completely at her ease once more, "I used to simply adore you, and I'm beginning to adore you again."

"That's because you don't know what a glum old grouch I really am."

"You--a grouch? Oh, Uncle Martin!" Her merry, infectious laugh left no doubt of how ridiculous such a notion seemed.

"Oh, yes; I am."

"Nonsense. You'll have to prove it to me."

"Ask your aunt or Bill; they'll tell you." The acrimony in his tone did not escape her.

"Then they'll have to prove it to me," she corrected, her gaiety now a trifle forced. Aunt Rose never had appreciated him, was her quick thought. Even as a child she had sensed that.

"How are they?" she added quickly. "Bill must be a great boy by this time."

"Only a few inches shorter than I am," Martin answered indifferently. "He's one of the kind who get their growth early--by the time he's fifteen he'll be six feet."

"I'm crazy to see them."

"Well, there's your aunt now," he resumed drily as they drew up before the little house that contrasted so conspicuously with the fine brick silos and imposing barns. Gleaming with windows, they loomed out of the twilight, reminding one, in their slate-colored paint, of magnificent battleships.

The bright glare of the auto picked Mrs. Wade out for them as mercilessly as a searchlight. Where she had been stout thirteen years before, she was now frankly fat. Four keen eyes noted the soft, cushiony double chin, the heavy breasts, ample stomach, spreading hips, and thick shoulders, rounded from many years of bending over her kitchen table. Kansas wind, Kansas well-water and Kansas sun had played their usual havoc, giving her skin the dull sand color so common in the Sunflower State. She had come from her cooking and she was hot, beads of sweat trickling from the deep folds of her neck. Withal, there was something so comfortable and motherly about her, the kind, wise eyes behind the gold-rimmed glasses were so misty with welcome and unspoken thoughts of the dear mother Rose had lost, that the girl went out to her sincerely even as she marvelled that the same years on the same farm which had given one person added polish and had made him even more good looking than ever, could have changed another so completely and turned her into such a toil-scarred, frumpy, oldish woman. Why, when she had been talking with Uncle Martin he had seemed no older than herself--well, not quite that, of course, but she had just forgotten about his age altogether--until she saw Aunt Rose. No wonder whenever he spoke of his wife every intonation told how little he loved her. How could he care any more--that way?

Rose's first look of astonishment and her darting glance in his own direction were not lost on Martin. With an imperceptible smile, he accepted the unintended compliment, but he felt a pang when he noticed that to her Aunt went the same affectionate, impetuous embrace that she had given to him at the station.

"You're losing your head," he told himself sternly, driving into the garage, where, stopping his engine, he continued to sit motionless at the wheel. "That ought to be a lesson to you; she's just naturally warm-hearted and loving. Always was. You're no more to her than anybody else. Well, there's no fool like an old fool." Yet, deeper than his admitted thought was the positive conviction that already something was up between them. If not, why this excitement and wild happiness? To be sure, nothing had been said--really. It had all been so light. Rose was just a bit of a born flirt. But he, having laughed at love all his life, loved her deeply, desperately. Well, so much the worse for himself--it couldn't lead anywhere. Yet in spite of all his logic he knew that something was going to happen. Hang it all--just what? He was afraid to answer his own question; not because of any dread of what his wife might do--he was conscious only of a new, cold, impersonal hatred toward her because she stood between him and his Rose; nor was it qualms about his ability to win the girl's heart. Already, despite his inexperience with love technique, he was, in some mysterious manner, making progress. The community --his position in it? This was food for thought certainly, but it was not what worried him. Then why this feeling of dismay when he wanted to be only glad?

The question was still unanswered when he finally left the garage. With all his powers of introspection, he had not yet fathomed the fact that it was a fear of his own, until now utterly unsuspected, capacity for recklessness. Heretofore, he had been able to count on the certainty that his best judgment would govern all his actions. Now, he felt himself clutching, almost frantically, at the hard sense of proportion that never before had so much as threatened to desert him. He went about his chores in a grave, automatic way, absorbed in anything but agriculture. Hardly ever did he pass through his barn without paying homage to his own progressiveness and oozing approval of the mechanical milker, driven by his own electrical dynamo, the James Way stanchions with electric lights above, the individual drinking fountains at the head of each cow, the cork-brick floors, the scrupulously white-washed walls, and the absence of odor, with the one exception of sweet, fermented silage. But, tonight, he was not seeing these symbols of material superiority. Instead he was thinking of a girl with eyes as soft as a dove's, lips like a thread of scarlet and small white teeth as even as a flock of his own Shropshire sheep. What else did that old King Solomon say? God Almighty, he thought, there was a man who understood! He'd try to get a chance to reread that Song of Songs that was breaking his own heart with its joy and its sadness.

His reverie was broken abruptly by the jangling supper-bell. When he reached the back door Bill was already at the table and Rose, in a simple gown that brought out the appealing lines of her slim young body, was deftly helping his wife in the final dishing up. As Martin stood a moment, looking in at the bright scene and listening to the happy chatter, he heard her ask if he had got her a job. At sight of him she cried excitedly: "Oh, Uncle Martin! You can't think how I adore my beautiful room! And Bill says it was you who first thought of building it for me. You old darling! You and Aunt Rose are the best people in the whole wide world. How can I ever thank you?"

"I'll tell you," he smiled, "forget all about that job and just stay around here and make us all young. Time enough to work when you have to."

Mrs. Wade noticed how Bill's eyes widened at these words, so unlike his father, and soon she was acutely aware of her husband's marked agreeableness whenever he directed his conversation toward Rose. He even tried to include his son and herself in this new atmosphere, but with each remark in their direction his manner changed subtly. Toward herself, in particular, his feelings were too deep for him to succeed in belying them.

As the meal progressed, she realized that her dim forebodings were fast materializing into a certain danger. Unless she acted promptly this slip of a girl was going to affect, fundamentally, all their lives. Already, it seemed as though she had been amongst them a long time and had colored the future of them all. Mrs. Wade understood far better than her husband would have supposed that, in his own way, his married life had been as starved as her own; oh, far more so, for she had her boy. And while it was not at all likely, it was not wholly impossible that he might seek a readjustment. It seemed far-fetched for her to sit thus and feel that drama was entering their hard lives when nothing had really happened, but nevertheless--she knew. As, outwardly so calm, she speculated with tumbled thoughts on how it might end, she tried to analyze why it was that the prospect of a shake-up filled her with such a sense of disaster. Surely, it was not because of any reluctance to separate from Martin. Her life would be far easier if they went their own ways. With Bill, she could make a home anywhere, one that was far more real, in a house from which broken promises did not sound as from a trumpet. Ashes of resentment still smouldered against Martin because of that failure of his to play fair. She recalled the years during which she had helped him to earn with never an unexpected pleasure; reflected with bitterness that never, since they had cast their lives together, had he urged her to indulge in any sweet little extravagance, though he had denied himself nothing that he really wished. It was no riddle to her, as it had been to her niece earlier in the evening, why the same hard work had dealt so benignly with Martin and so uncharitably with herself. She comprehended only too well that it was not that alone which had crushed her. It was his ceaseless domination over her, the utter subjugation of her will, her complete lack of freedom. She glanced across the table at him, astounded by his hearty laugh in response to one of Rose's sallies. It seemed incredible that it could be really Martin's. It had such a ring and came out so easily as if he were more inclined to merriment than to silence. Usually, he seemed made of long strips of thin steel, but under the inspiration of Rose's presence he had become animated, brisk, interesting. No wonder she was being drawn to him.

It was as if he had withheld from his wife a secret alchemy that had kept him handsome and attractive, as compelling as when he had come in search of herself so long ago. And now that the last vestige of her own bloom was gone, he was laughing at her, inwardly, as a cunning person does who plays a malicious trick on a simpler, more trusting, soul. Only it had taken twenty years to spring the point of this one. Hatred welled in her heart; a sad, weary hatred that knew no tears. She wished that she might hurt him as he had hurt her. Yet, with her usual honesty, she presently admitted how easy it would be for this malevolence to melt away--a word, a look, a gesture from Martin and the heart in her would flood with forgiveness; but the look did not come, the word was unuttered.

He was squandering, she continued to observe, sufficient evidence of his interest at the feet of this child who never would have missed it, while she, herself, who could have lifted mountains from her breast with one tenth of this appreciation, was left, as she always had been left, without the love her being craved, the love of a mate, rising full and strong to meet her own. It was a yearning that the most cherished of children could never satisfy and as she watched Martin and Rose her position seemed to her to be that of a hungry pauper, brought to the table of a rich gourmand, there to look on helplessly while the other toyed carelessly with the precious morsels of which she was in such extreme need. And what rankled was that these thoughts were futile, that too much water had run under the bridge, that it was her lot in Martin's life merely to accept what was offered her. She knew that the marks of her many hours of suppressed anguish, thousands of days of toil and long series of disappointments were thick upon her. She realized, too, how ironical it was that with all her work she should have grown to be so ungainly although Martin retained the old magnetism of his gorgeous physique. There was no doubt that if he chose, he could still hold a woman's devotion. Yes, for him there was an open road from this gray monotony, if he had the will and the courage to escape.

Suddenly, she found herself wondering what effect all this would have on Bill. She stole a surreptitious glance at him, but he, too, seemed to have been caught up by Rose's gay, good humor. Mrs. Wade sighed as she remembered how everyone had flocked around Norah. Rose had inherited her mother's charm. Such women were a race apart. They could no more be held responsible for trying to please than a flower for exhaling its fragrance. At what a lovely moment of life she was! Small wonder that Martin was captivated, but not even the shadow of harm must fall on that fresh young spirit while she was under their roof. If things went much further she would have it out with him. And this decision reached, Mrs. Wade felt her usual composure gradually return, nor did it again desert her during the long evening through which it seemed to her as if her husband must be some stranger.

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