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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 17129

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


Lenore waited for Kurt, and stood half concealed behind the curtains. It had dawned upon her that she had an ordeal at hand. Her heart palpitated. She heard his quick step on the stairs. She called before she showed herself.

"Hello!… Oh, but you startled me!" he exclaimed. He had been surprised, too, at the abrupt meeting. Certainly he had not been thinking of her. His pale, determined face attested to stern and excitable thought.

He halted before her.

"Where are you going?" asked Lenore.

"To see your father."

"What about?"

"It's rather important," he replied, with hesitation.

"Will it take long?"

He showed embarrassment. "I-He-We'll be occupied 'most all evening."

"Indeed!… Very well. If you'd rather be-occupied-than spend the evening with me!" Lenore turned away, affecting a disdainful and hurt manner.

"Lenore, it's not that," he burst out. "I-I'd rather spend an evening with you than anybody else-or do anything."

"That's very easy to say, Mr. Dorn," she returned, lightly.

"But it's true," he protested.

"Come out of the hall. Father will hear us," she said, and led him into the room. It was not so light in there, but what light there was fell upon his face and left hers in shadow.

"I've made an-an appointment for to-night," he declared, with difficulty.

"Can't you break it?" she asked.

"No. That would lay me open to-to cowardice-perhaps your father's displeasure."

"Kurt Dorn, it's brave to give up some things!… And if you go you'll incur my displeasure."

"Go!" he ejaculated, staring at her.

"Oh, I know!… And I'm-well, not flattered to see you'd rather go hang I.W.W.'s than stay here with me." Lenore did not feel the assurance and composure with which she spoke. She was struggling with her own feelings. She believed that just as soon as she and Kurt understood each other-faced each other without any dissimulation-then she would feel free and strong. If only she could put the situation on a sincere footing! She must work for that. Her difficulty was with a sense of falsity. There was no time to plan. She must change his mind.

Her words had made him start.

"Then you know?" he asked.

"Of course."

"I'm sorry for that," he replied, soberly, as he brushed a hand up through his wet hair.

"But you will stay home?"

"No," he returned, shortly, and he looked hard.

"Kurt, I don't want you mixed up with any lynching-bees," she said, earnestly.

"I'm a citizen of Washington. I'll join the vigilantes. I'm American. I've been ruined by these I.W.W.'s. No man in the West has lost so much! Father-home-land-my great harvest of wheat!… Why shouldn't I go?"

"There's no reason except-me," she replied, rather unsteadily.

He drew himself up, with a deep breath, as if fortifying himself. "That's a mighty good reason.… But you will be kinder if you withdraw your objections."

"Can't you conceive of any reason why I-I beg you not to go?"

"I can't," he replied, staring at her. It seemed that every moment he spent in her presence increased her effect upon him. Lenore felt this, and that buoyed up her failing courage.

"Kurt, you've made a very distressing-a terrible and horrible blunder," she said, with a desperation that must have seemed something else to him.

"My heavens! What have I done?" he gasped, his face growing paler. How ready he was to see more catastrophe! It warmed her heart and strengthened her nerve.

The moment had come. Even if she did lose her power of speech she still could show him what his blunder was. Nothing in all her life had ever been a hundredth part as hard as this. Yet, as the words formed, her whole heart seemed to be behind them, forcing them out. If only he did not misunderstand!

Then she looked directly at him and tried to speak. Her first attempt was inarticulate, her second was a whisper, "Didn't you ever-think I-I might care for you?"

It was as if a shock went over him, leaving him trembling. But he did not look as amazed as incredulous. "No, I certainly never did," he said.

"Well-that's your blunder-for I-I do. You-you never-never-asked me."

"You do what-care for me?… What on earth do you mean by that?"

Lenore was fighting many emotions now, the one most poignant being a wild desire to escape, which battled with an equally maddening one to hide her face on his breast.

Yet she could see how white he had grown-how different. His hands worked convulsively and his eyes pierced her very soul.

"What should a girl mean-telling she cared?"

"I don't know. Girls are beyond me," he replied, stubbornly.

"Indeed that's true. I've felt so far beyond you-I had to come to this."

"Lenore," he burst out, hoarsely, "you talk in riddles! You've been so strange, yet so fine, so sweet! And now you say you care for me!… Care?… What does that mean? A word can drive me mad. But I never dared to hope. I love you-love you-love you-my God! you're all I've left to love. I-"

"Do you think you've a monopoly on all the love in the world?" interrupted Lenore, coming to her real self. His impassioned declaration was all she needed. Her ordeal was over.

It seemed as if he could not believe his ears or eyes.

"Monopoly! World!" he echoed. "Of course I don't. But-"

"Kurt, I love you just as much as-as you love me.… So there!"

Lenore had time for one look at his face before he enveloped her. What a relief to hide her own! It was pressed to his breast very closely. Her eyes shut, and she felt hot tears under the lids. All before her darkened sight seemed confusion, whirling chaos. It seemed that she could not breathe and, strangely, did not need to. How unutterably happy she felt! That was an age-long moment-wonderful for her own relief and gladness-full of changing emotions. Presently Kurt appeared to be coming to some semblance of rationality. He released her from that crushing embrace, but still kept an arm around her while he held her off and looked at her.

"Lenore, will you kiss me?" he whispered.

She could have cried out in sheer delight at the wonder of that whisper in her ear. It had been she who had changed the world for Kurt Dorn.

"Yes-presently," she replied, with a tremulous little laugh. "Wait till-I get my breath-"

"I was beside myself-am so yet," he replied, low voiced as if in awe. "I've been lifted to heaven.… It cannot be true. I believe, yet I'll not be sure till you kiss me.… You-Lenore Anderson, this girl of my dreams! Do you love me-is it true?"

"Yes, Kurt, indeed I do-very dearly," she replied, and turned to look up into his face. It was transfigured. Lenore's heart swelled as a deep and profound emotion waved over her.

"Please kiss me-then."

She lifted her face, flushing scarlet. Their lips met. Then with her head upon his shoulder and her hands closely held she answered the thousand and one questions of a bewildered and exalted lover who could not realize the truth. Lenore laughed at him and eloquently furnished proof of her own obsession, and told him how and why and when it all came about.

Not for hours did Kurt come back to actualities. "I forgot about the vigilantes," he exclaimed, suddenly. "It's too late now.… How the time has flown!… Oh, Lenore, thought of other things breaks in, alas!"

He kissed her hand and got up. Another change was coming over him. Lenore had long expected the moment when realization would claim his attention. She was prepared.

"Yes, you forgot your appointment with dad and the vigilantes. You've missed some excitement and violence."

His face had grown white again-grave now and troubled. "May I speak to your father?" he asked.

"Yes," she replied.

"If I come back from the war-well-not crippled-will you promise to marry me?"

"Kurt, I promise now."

That seemed to shake him. "But, Lenore, it is not fair to you. I don't believe a soldier should bind a girl by marriage or engagement before he goes to war. She should be free.… I want you to be free."

"That's for you to say," she replied, softly. "But for my part, I don't want to be free-if you go away to war."

"If!… I'm going," he said, with a start. "You don't want to be free? Lenore, would you be engaged to me?"

"My dear boy, of course I would.… It seems I am, doesn't it?" she replied, with one of her deep, low laughs.

He gazed at her, fascinated, worked upon by overwhelming emotions. "Would you marry me-before I go?"

"Yes," she flashed.

He bent and bowed then under the storm. Stumbling to her, almost on his knees, he brokenly expre

ssed his gratitude, his wonder, his passion, and the terrible temptation that he must resist, which she must help him to resist.

"Kurt, I love you. I will see things through your eyes, if I must. I want to be a comfort to you, not a source of sorrow."

"But, Lenore, what comfort can I find?… To leave you now is going to be horrible!… To part from you now-I don't see how I can."

Then Lenore dared to broach the subject so delicate, so momentous.

"You need not part from me. My father has asked me to try to keep you home. He secured exemption for you. You are more needed here than at the front. You can feed many soldiers. You would be doing your duty-with honor!… You would be a soldier. The government is going to draft young men for farm duty. Why not you? There are many good reasons why you would be better than most young men. Because you know wheat. And wheat is to become the most important thing in the world. No one misjudges your loyalty.… And surely you see that the best service to your country is what you can do best."

He sat down beside her, with serious frown and somber eyes. "Lenore, are you asking me not to go to war?"

"Yes, I am," she replied. "I have thought it all over. I've given up my brother. I'd not ask you to stay home if you were needed at the front as much as here. That question I have had out with my conscience.… Kurt, don't think me a silly, sentimental girl. Events of late have made me a woman."

He buried his face in his hands. "That's the most amazing of all-you-Lenore Anderson, my American girl-asking me not to go to war."

"But, dear, it is not so amazing. It's reasonable. Your peculiar point of view makes it look different. I am no weak, timid, love-sick girl afraid to let you go!… I've given you good, honorable, patriotic reasons for your exemption from draft. Can you see that?"

"Yes. I grant all your claims. I know wheat well enough to tell you that if vastly more wheat-raising is not done the world will starve. That would hold good for the United States in forty years without war."

"Then if you see my point why are you opposed to it?" she asked.

"Because I am Kurt Dorn," he replied, bitterly.

His tone, his gloom made her shiver. It would take all her intelligence and wit and reason to understand him, and vastly more than that to change him. She thought earnestly. This was to be an ordeal profoundly more difficult than the confession of her love. It was indeed a crisis dwarfing the other she had met. She sensed in him a remarkably strange attitude toward this war, compared with that of her brother or other boys she knew who had gone.

"Because you are Kurt Dorn," she said, thoughtfully. "It's in the name, then.… But I think it a pretty name-a good name. Have I not consented to accept it as mine-for life?"

He could not answer that. Blindly he reached out with a shaking hand, to find hers, to hold it close. Lenore felt the tumult in him. She was shocked. A great tenderness, sweet and motherly, flooded over her.

"Dearest, in this dark hour-that was so bright a little while ago-you must not keep anything from me," she replied. "I will be true to you. I will crush my selfish hopes. I will be your mother.… tell me why you must go to war because you are Kurt Dorn."

"My father was German. He hated this country-yours and mine. He plotted with the I.W.W. He hated your father and wanted to destroy him.… Before he died he realized his crime. For so I take the few words he spoke to Jerry. But all the same he was a traitor to my country. I bear his name. I have German in me.… And by God I'm going to pay!"

His deep, passionate tones struck into Lenore's heart. She fought with a rising terror. She was beginning to understand him. How helpless she felt-how she prayed for inspiration-for wisdom!

"Pay!… How?" she asked.

"In the only way possible. I'll see that a Dorn goes to war-who will show his American blood-who will fight and kill-and be killed!"

His passion, then, was more than patriotism. It had its springs in the very core of his being. He had, it seemed, a debt that he must pay. But there was more than this in his grim determination. And Lenore divined that it lay hidden in his bitter reference to his German blood. He hated that-doubted himself because of it. She realized now that to keep him from going to war would be to make him doubt his manhood and eventually to despise himself. No longer could she think of persuading him to stay home. She must forget herself. She knew then that she had the power to keep him and she could use it, but she must not do so. This tragic thing was a matter of his soul. But if he went to war with this bitter obsession, with this wrong motive, this passionate desire to spill blood in him that he hated, he would lose his soul. He must be changed. All her love, all her woman's flashing, subtle thought concentrated on this fact. How strange the choice that had been given her! Not only must she relinquish her hope of keeping him home, but she must perhaps go to desperate ends to send him away with a changed spirit. The moment of decision was agony for her.

"Kurt, this is a terrible hour for both of us," she said, "but, thank Heaven, you have confessed to me. Now I will confess to you."

"Confess?… You?… What nonsense!" he exclaimed. But in his surprise he lifted his head from his hands to look at her.

"When we came in here my mind was made up to make you stay home. Father begged me to do it, and I had my own selfish motive. It was love. Oh, I do love you, Kurt, more than you can dream of!… I justified my resolve. I told you that. But I wanted you. I wanted your love-your presence. I longed for a home with you as husband-master-father to my babies. I dreamed of all. It filled me with terror to think of you going to war. You might be crippled-mangled-murdered.… Oh, my dear, I could not bear the thought!… So I meant to overcome you. I had it all planned. I meant to love you-to beg you-to kiss you-to make you stay-"

"Lenore, what are you saying?" he cried, in shocked amaze.

She flung her arms round his neck. "Oh, I could-I could have kept you!" she answered, low voiced and triumphant. "It fills me with joy.… Tell me I could have kept you-tell me."

"Yes. I've no power to resist you. But I might have hated-"

"Hush!… It's all might have.… I've risen above myself."

"Lenore, you distress me. A little while ago you bewildered me with your sweetness and love.… Now-you look like an angel or a goddess.… Oh, to have your face like this-always with me! Yet it distresses me-so terrible in purpose. What are you about to tell me? I see something-"

"Listen," she broke in. "I meant to make you weak. I implore you now to be strong. You must go to war! But with all my heart and soul I beg you to go with a changed spirit.… You were about to do a terrible thing. You hated the German in you and meant to kill it by violence. You despised the German blood and you meant to spill it. Like a wild man you would have rushed to fight, to stab and beat, to murder-and you would have left your breast open for a bayonet-thrust.… Oh, I know it!… Kurt, you are horribly wrong. That is no way to go to war.… War is a terrible business, but men don't wage it for motives such as yours. We Americans all have different strains of blood-English-French-German. One is as good as another. You are obsessed-you are out of your head on this German question. You must kill that idea-kill it with one bayonet-thrust of sense.… You must go to war as my soldier-with my ideal. Your country has called you to help uphold its honor, its pledged word. You must fight to conquer an enemy who threatens to destroy freedom.… You must be brave, faithful, merciful, clean-an American soldier!… You are only one of a million. You have no personal need for war. You are as good, as fine, as noble as any man-my choice, sir, of all the men in the world!… I am sending you. I am giving you up.… Oh, my darling-you will never know how hard it is!… But go! Your life has been sad. You have lost so much. I feel in my woman's heart what will be-if only you'll change-if you see God in this as I see. Promise me. Love that which you hated. Prove for yourself what I believe. Trust me-promise me… Then-oh, I know God will send you back to me!"

He fell upon his knees before her to bury his face in her lap. His whole frame shook. His hands plucked at her dress. A low sob escaped him.

"Lenore," he whispered, brokenly, "I can't see God in this-for me!… I can't promise!"

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