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VIII 


THE DUST SMOTHERS

WHEN Martin opened his eyes, next morning, he realized with a start that he had overslept, which was a new experience for one whose life had been devoted so consistently to hard toil; and he saw with a sharper start, that his wife, who always got up about a half hour earlier than himself, was not even yet awake. He wondered what had come over him that he should have committed such a sin, and as his tired mind opened one of its doors and let the confused impressions flutter out, he countenanced a luxury as unusual as the impulse that had sent him townward the evening before to bring home the Victrola. Instead of jumping out hastily so that he might attend to his hungry, bellowing stock, he lay quietly marshalling the new incidents of his life into a parade which he ordered to march across the low ceiling.

He could not comprehend what the tornado had been about. There had been so little on which to base the excitement--so little that he was puzzled as to what had caused the scene with his wife. And as he reflected, it seemed highly unlikely to him that he would ever permit himself to do anything that might jeopardize his whole life, topple over the structure that decades of work had built. Why, it was scarcely less than suicidal to let a stranger come into his heart and maybe weaken his position. He remembered his last thought before falling asleep. It appeared unutterably rash, though when hit upon, it had been a decision that moderated a more extreme action. Now he realized that it was the very acme of foolishness deliberately to sacrifice half his fortune, especially the farm itself, to which he had given so many years of complete concentration. Certainly, if Rose were ready to be his, he might not hesitate even a second; but this flower was still to be won by him, and this morning, aware of what scant grounds he had upon which to venture any forecasts, he felt as full of doubt as he had been of confidence last night. It had been a saddening experience, but fortunate, for all that, inasmuch as nothing serious had come of it, except that he was greatly sobered. Martin could not understand that mysterious something which had risen up in his nature and threatened to wreck a carefully-built life. It was his first meeting with the little demon that rebels in a man after he thinks his character and his reactions thoroughly established, and he shuddered as he realized how close the strange imp had pulled him to the precipice. Yesterday, that precipice had seemed a new paradise; now it was a yawning chasm --and he drew back, frightened.

Cows, horses, sheep, pigs, chickens, turkeys, dogs, barn cats--all do not remain patient while the man who owns them lies in bed dreaming dreams. They wait a while and then get nervous. The many messages for food which they sent to Martin forced him to spring out of bed and hurry to them, for nothing is as unbearably insistent as a barn and yard full of living things clamoring their determination to have something to eat. As Martin ran to stop the bedlam, he saw the world as an enormous, empty stomach, at the opening of which he stood, hurling in the feed as fast as his muscles would permit. It was all there was to farming--raising crops and then shovelling the hay and the grain into these stomachs. Martin stood back a few feet and with loving eyes watched his animals enjoy their food. Here were the creatures he loved. The fine herd of Holstein cows--their big eyes looked at him with such trust! And their black and white markings--so spick and span with shininess because he threw salt on them that each cow might lick the other clean--their heavy milk veins, great udders, and backs as straight as a die--all appealed to his sense of the beautiful. "God Almighty!" he thought, "but they're wonders! There's none like them west of Chicago." The mule colts, so huge and handsome, and oh, so knowing! made him chuckle his pride and satisfaction in a muttered: "Man's creation, are you, you fine young devils? Well, you're a credit, the lot of you, to whoever deserves it." His eyes wandered over the rest of his stock, swept his wide realm. It was all a very part of himself. Yes, here was his life--here was his world. It would be the height of folly to leave it.

At breakfast, his wife ate sullenly, refusing to be drawn into the conversation, but by a wise compression of her lips and a flicker of amusement in her eyes, which seemed to say: "Oh, if only you could see how absurd you appear," she contrived very cleverly to render Martin miserably self-conscious. Hampered by this new and unexpected feeling, his attempts to be pleasant fell flat and he lapsed into his old grimness, while Rose, eating quickly, confined her remarks to her determination to go to town in search of a job. Had Martin not talked as he had to his wife he would have been able, undoubtedly, to disregard her and to continue the line of chatter which he had hit upon so happily and which he had never suspected was in him. But the fact, not so much that she knew, but that from this vantage point of knowledge she was ridiculing him, was too much for even his self-possession. It made the light banter impossible. Especially, as there was no doubt that Rose did not seem anxious for it.

For Martin had not been the only member of that household who had held early communion with himself. The girl had sat long and dreamily at her dressing table--the dainty one of rich, dark mahogany that Uncle Martin's thoughtfulness had provided. It seemed unbelievable, but there was no use pretending she was mistaken--Uncle Martin, Aunt Rose's husband, was falling in love with her. She felt a little heady with the excitement of it. He was so different from the callow youths and dapper fellows who had heretofore worshipped at her shrine. There was something so imposing, so important about him. She was conscious that a man so much older might not appeal to many girls of her age, but it so happened that he did appeal to her. She would be able to have everything she wished, too--didn't she know how good, how kind, how tender he could be. And her heart yearned toward him--he was so clearly misunderstood, unhappy. But what about Aunt Rose? Well, then, why had she let herself get to be so ugly? She looked as if the greases of her own kitchen stove had cooked into her skin, thought the girl, mercilessly. Didn't she know there was such a thing as a powder puff? Women like that brought their own troubles upon themselves, that's what they did. And she was an old prude, too. Anyone could see with half an eye that she didn't like the idea of Uncle Martin learning to dance--why, she didn't even like his getting the Victrola--when it was just what both he and Bill had been wanting. But for all that she was her aunt, her own mother's sister and, poor dear, she was a good soul. It would probably upset her awfully and besides, oh well, it just wasn't right.

Before her mirror Rose blushed furiously, quite ashamed of the light way in which she had been leading Uncle Martin on. "But I haven't said one solitary thing auntie couldn't have heard," she justified herself. Oh, well, no harm had been done. But she mustn't stay here, that was certain. She wouldn't say so, or hurt their feelings, for she wanted to be on the best of terms with them always, but she would stop flirting with Uncle Martin and just turn him back into a dear good friend. She hoped she was clever enough to do that much. And the dark-brown curls received a brushing that left no doubt of the vigor of her decisions.

She insisted that she go to Fallon that morning.

"I've been here eight whole days, Uncle Martin," she announced firmly, "eight whole days and haven't tried to get a thing. It's terrible, isn't it, Aunt Rose, how lazy I am. I'm going to have Bill take me in right straight after breakfast."

"If you're so set on it, I'll see about your position this afternoon," conceded Martin reluctantly. "We'll drive in in the car."

"Oh, Uncle Martin," she coaxed innocently, "let me try my luck alone first. Bill can tell me who the different men are and if I know he's waiting for me outside in the buggy, it will keep me from being scared." And her young cousin, only too pleased with the proposed arrangement, chimed in with: "That's the stuff, Rose. Folks have got to go it on their own, to get anywhere."

By evening she had a position in an insurance agent's office with wages upon which she could live with fair decency. As it had rained all day and her employer wanted her to begin the next morning, she had the best possible excuse for renting a room in Fallon and asking Bill to ride in horseback with some things which she would ask Aunt Rose, over the telephone, to pack. It rained all the next day, too, and Sunday, when she met Mrs. Wade and Bill at church, she told them she had some extra typing she had promised to do by Monday. "No, auntie" this week it is really and truly just impossible, but next week--honest and true!" she insisted as the older woman seconded rather impersonally her son's urgent invitation to chicken and noodles.

Soon winter was upon them in good earnest, and Rose's visits "home," as she always called it, were naturally infrequent. By Christmas time, she was receiving attentions from Frank Mall, Nellie's second son, a young farmer of twenty-five.

To Mrs. Wade's everlasting credit, she never twitted Martin with this, although she knew it from Rose's own lips, a month before he heard of it through Bill. She was too grateful for their narrow escape to feel vindictive and might have convinced herself they had merely endured a bad nightmare if it had not been for the shiny Victrola; the sight of it underscored the whole experience and she wished there were some way to get rid of the thing, a wish that was echoed even more fervently by Martin. In the evenings they would sit around the cleared supper table, she doing odd jobs of mending, Martin reading, checking up the interest dates on his mortgages or making entries in his account book, while Bill at his books, would study to the accompaniment of record after record, blissfully unconscious of what a thorn in the flesh he and his music were to both his parents.

It was all so unpleasant. To Mrs. Wade it brought up pictures. And it made Martin feel sheepish--the way he had felt that afternoon, decades ago, as he sat in the bakery eating a chocolate ice-cream soda and watching her walk across the Square. He would have told Bill to quit playing it--more than once the sharp words were on his tongue--but memories of the enthusiasm he had evinced the night he brought it home kept him silent. He was afraid of what the boy might say, afraid he might put two and two together, so he let it stay, although with his usual caution he had arranged for a trial and would have felt justified in packing it back as soon as the roads had permitted. Illogically, he felt it was all Bill's fault that he must endure this annoyance.

That fall, the boy started to high school in Fallon, making the long daily ride to and from town on horseback. He was a good pupil and the hours he spent with his lessons were precious; they made the farm drift away. To his mind, which was opening like a bud, it seemed that history was the recorded romance of men who were everything but farmers. School books told fascinating stories of conquerors, soldiers, inventors, writers, engineers, kings, statesmen and orators. He would sit and dream of the doers of great deeds. When he read of Alexander the Great, Bill was he. He was Caesar and Napoleon, Washington and Lincoln, Grant and Edison and Shakespeare. When railroads were built in the pages of his American History, it was Bill, himself, no less, who was the presiding genius. His imagination constructed and levelled, and rebuilt and remade.

One beautiful November afternoon, in his Junior year, at the sound of the last bell, which usually found him cantering out of town, he went instead to the school reading-room, and, sitting down calmly, opened his book and slowly read. The clock ticked off the seconds he was stealing from his father; counted the minutes that had never belonged to Bill before, but which now tasted like old wine on the palate. He cuddled down, lost to the world until five o'clock, when the building was closed. He left it only to march down a few blocks to the town's meager library, where another hour flew past. Gradually an empty feeling in his middle region became increasingly insistent, and briefly exploring his pockets, Bill decided upon a restaurant where he bought a stew and rolls for fifteen cents. Never had a supper tasted so satisfying. After it, he strolled around the town, feeling a pleasant warmth in his veins, a springiness to his legs, a new song in his heart. It was so good to be free to go where he pleased, to be his own master, if only for a stolen hour, to keep out of sight of a cow or a plow. He wondered why he had never done this before.

It was youth daring Fate, without show or bravado or fear; rolling the honey under his tongue and drawing in its sweetness; youth, that lives for the moment, that can be blind to the threatening future, that can forget the mean past; youth slipping along with some chewing-gum between his teeth and a warm sensation in his stew-crammed stomach, whistling, dreaming, happy; youth, that can, without premeditation, remain away from home and leave udders untapped and pigs unfed; sublime enigma; angering bit of irresponsibility to the Martins of a fiercely practical world. Bill was that rare kind of boy who could pull away from the traces just when he seemed most thoroughly broken to the harness.

It was ten o'clock before he got his pony out of the livery barn and started for home. Even on the way, he refused to imagine what would happen. He entered the house quietly, as though to tell his father that it was his next move, and setting his bundle of books on a chair, he glanced at his mother. She was at the stove, where an armful of kindling had been set off to take the chill out of the house. She looked at him mysteriously, as though he were a ghost of some lost one who had strayed in from a graveyard, but she said nothing. Bill did not even nod to her. He fumbled with his books, as though to keep them from slipping to the floor when, quite obviously, they were not even inclined to leave the chair. Rose let her eyes fall and then slide, under half-closed lids, until they had Martin in her view. She looked at him appealingly, but he was staring at a paper which he was not reading. He had been in this chair for two hours, without a word, pretending to be studying printed words which his mind refused to register. Martin had done Bill's share of the chores, with unbelief in his heart. He had never imagined such a thing. Who would have thought it could happen--a son of his!

His wife broke the silence with:

"What happened, Billy? Were you sick?"

"No, mother, I wasn't sick."

Martin was still looking at his paper, which his fists gripped tightly.

"Then you just couldn't get home sooner, could you? Something you couldn't help kept you away, didn't it?"

Bill shook his head slowly. "No," he answered easily. "I could have come home much sooner."

"Billy, dear, what DID happen?" She was beginning to feel panicky; he was courting distress.

"Nothing, mother. I just felt like staying in the reading-room and reading--"

"Oh, you HAD to do some lessons, didn't you! Miss Roberts should have known better--"

"I didn't have to stay in--I wanted to."

Martin still kept silent, his eyes looking over the newspaper wide open, staring, the muscles of his jaw relaxed. The boy was quick to sense that he was winning--the simple, non-resistance of the lamb was confounding his father.

"I wanted to stay. I read a book, and then I took a walk, and then I dropped in at the restaurant for a bite, and then I walked around some more, and then I went to a movie."

"Billy, what are you saying?"

Martin, slowly putting down his paper, remarked without stressing a syllable:

"You had better go to bed, Bill; at once, without arguing."

Bill moved towards the parlor, as though to obey. At the door he stopped a moment and said: "I wasn't arguing; I was just answering mother. She wanted to know."

"She does not want to know."

"Then I wanted her to know that I don't intend to work after school any more. I'll do my chores in the morning, but that's all. From now on nobody can MAKE me do anything."

"I am not asking you to do anything but go to bed."

"I don't intend to come home tomorrow afternoon until I'm ready. Or any afternoon. And if you don't like it--"

"Billy!" his mother cried; "Billy! go to bed!"

The boy obeyed.

Bill was fifteen when this took place. The impossible had happened. He had challenged the master and had won. Even after he had turned in, his father remained silent, feeling a secret respect for him; mysteriously he had grown suddenly to manhood. Martin was too mental to let anger express itself in violence and, besides, strangely enough, he felt no desire to punish; there was still the dislike he had always felt for him--his son who was the son of this woman, but though he would never have confessed aloud the satisfaction it gave him, he began to see there was in the boy more than a little of himself.

"Poor Billy," his mother apologized; "he's tired."

"He didn't say he was tired--"

"Then he did say he was tired of working evenings."

"That's different."

"Yes, it's different, Martin; but can you make him work?"

"No, I don't intend to try. He isn't my slave."

With overwhelming pride in her eyes, pride that shook her voice, she exclaimed: "Not anybody's slave, and not afraid to declare it. Billy is a different kind of a boy. He doesn't like the farm--he hates it--"

"I know."

"He loathes everything about it. Only the other day he told me he wished he could take it and tear it board from board, and leave it just a piece of bleak prairie, as it was when your father brought you here, Martin."

"You actually mean he said he would tear down what took so many years of work to build? This farm that gives him a home and clothes and feeds him?"

"He did, Martin. And he meant it--there was hatred burning in his eyes. There's that in his heart which can tear and rend; and there's that which can build. Oh, my unhappy Billy, my boy!"

"Don't get hysterical. What do you want me to do? Have I said he must work?"

"No, but you have tried to rub it into his soul and it just can't be done. You're not to be blamed for being what you are, nor is Billy--I'll milk his cows."

"I'm not asking that."

"But I will, Martin."

"And let him stand by and watch you?"

"Put it that way if you will. Billy must get away from here. I see that now."

"I haven't suggested it."

"But I do. I want him to be happy. We'll let him board in Fallon the rest of the year. The butter and egg money will be enough to carry him through. It won't cost much. If we don't send him, he'll run away. I know him. He's my boy, and your son, Martin. I won't see him suffer in a strange world, learning his lessons from bitter experiences. I want him to be taken care of."

"Very well, have it as you say. I'm not putting anything in the way. I thought this was his home, but I see it isn't. It isn't a prison. He can go, and good luck go with him." And after a long silence: "He would tear down this farm--the best in the county! Tear it down--board from board!"

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