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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Desert of Wheat By Zane Grey Characters: 16805

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


For two fleeting days Lenore Anderson was happy when she forgot, miserable when she remembered. Then the third morning dawned.

At the breakfast-table her father had said, cheerily, to Dorn: "Better take off your coat an' come out to the fields. We've got some job to harvest that wheat with only half-force.… But, by George! my trouble's over."

Dorn looked suddenly blank, as if Anderson's cheery words had recalled him to the realities of life. He made an incoherent excuse and left the table.

"Ah-huh!" Anderson's characteristic exclamation might have meant little or much. "Lenore, what ails the boy?"

"Nothing that I know of. He has been as-as happy as I am," she replied.

"Then it's all settled?"

"Father, I-I-"

Kathleen's high, shrill, gleeful voice cut in: "Sure it's settled! Look at Lenorry blush!"

Lenore indeed felt the blood stinging face and neck. Nevertheless, she laughed.

"Come into my room," said Anderson.

She followed him there, and as he closed the door she answered his questioning look by running into his arms and hiding her face.

"Wal, I'll be dog-goned!" the rancher ejaculated, with emotion. He held her and patted her shoulder with his big hand. "Tell me, Lenore."

"There's little to tell," she replied, softly. "I love him-and he loves me so-so well that I've been madly happy-in spite of-of-"

"Is that all?" asked Anderson, dubiously.

"Is not that enough?"

"But Dorn's lovin' you so well doesn't say he'll not go to war."

And it was then that forgotten bitterness returned to poison Lenore's cup of joy.

"Ah!"… she whispered.

"Good Lord! Lenore, you don't mean you an' Dorn have been alone all the time these few days-an' you haven't settled that war question?" queried Anderson, in amaze.

"Yes.… How strange!… But since-well, since something happened-we-we forgot," she replied, dreamily.

"Wal, go back to it," said Anderson, forcibly. "I want Dorn to help me.… Why, he's a wonder!… He's saved the situation for us here in the valley. Every rancher I know is praisin' him high. An' he sure treated Neuman square. An' here I am with three big wheat-ranches on my hands!… Lenore, you've got to keep him home."

"Dad!… I-I could not!" replied Lenore. She was strangely realizing an indefinable change in herself. "I can't try to keep him from going to war. I never thought of that since-since we confessed our love.… But it's made some difference.… It'll kill me, I think, to let him go-but I'd die before I'd ask him to stay home."

"Ah-huh!" sighed Anderson, and, releasing her, he began to pace the room. "I don't begin to understand you, girl. But I respect your feelin's. It's a hell of a muddle!… I'd forgotten the war myself while chasin' off them I.W.W.'s.… But this war has got to be reckoned with!… Send Dorn to me!"

Lenore found Dorn playing with Kathleen. These two had become as brother and sister.

"Kurt, dad wants to see you," said Lenore seriously.

Dorn looked startled, and the light of fun on his face changed to a sober concern.

"You told him?"

"Yes, Kurt, I told him what little I had to tell."

He gave her a strange glance and then slowly went toward her father's study. Lenore made a futile attempt to be patient. She heard her father's deep voice, full and earnest, and she heard Dorn's quick, passionate response. She wondered what this interview meant. Anderson was not one to give up easily. He had set his heart upon holding this capable young man in the great interests of the wheat business. Lenore could not understand why she was not praying that he be successful. But she was not. It was inexplicable and puzzling-this change in her-this end of her selfishness. Yet she shrank in terror from an impinging sacrifice. She thrust the thought from her with passionate physical gesture and with stern effort of will.

Dorn was closeted with her father for over an hour. When he came out he was white, but apparently composed. Lenore had never seen his eyes so piercing as when they rested upon her.

"Whew!" he exclaimed, and wiped his face. "Your father has my poor old dad-what does Kathleen say?-skinned to a frazzle!"

"What did he say?" asked Lenore, anxiously.

"A lot-and just as if I didn't know it all better than he knows," replied Dorn, sadly. "The importance of wheat; his three ranches and nobody to run them; his growing years; my future and a great opportunity as one of the big wheat men of the Northwest; the present need of the government; his only son gone to war, which was enough for his family.… And then he spoke of you-heiress to 'Many Waters'-what a splendid, noble girl you were-like your mother! What a shame to ruin your happiness-your future!… He said you'd make the sweetest of wives-the truest of mothers!… Oh, my God!"

Lenore turned away her face, shocked to her heart by his tragic passion. Dorn was silent for what seemed a long time.

"And-then he cussed me-hard-as no doubt I deserved," added Dorn.

"But-what did you say?" she whispered.

"I said a lot, too," replied Dorn, remorsefully.

"Did-did you-?" began Lenore, and broke off, unable to finish.

"I arrived-to where I am now-pretty dizzy," he responded, with a smile that was both radiant and sorrowful. He took her hands and held them close. "Lenore!… if I come home from the war-still with my arms and legs-whole-will you marry me?"

"Only come home alive, and no matter what you lose, yes!-yes!" she whispered, brokenly.

"But it's a conditional proposal, Lenore," he insisted. "You must never marry half a man."

"I will marry you!" she cried, passionately.

It seemed to her that she loved him all the more, every moment, even though he made it so hard for her. Then through blurred, dim eyes she saw him take something from his pocket and felt him put a ring on her finger.

"It fits! Isn't that lucky," he said, softly. "My mother's ring, Lenore.…"

He kissed her hand.

Kathleen was standing near them, open-eyed and open-mouthed, in an ecstasy of realization.

"Kathleen, your sister has promised to marry me-when I come from the war," said Dorn to the child.

She squealed with delight, and, manifestly surrendering to a long-considered temptation, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him close.

"It's perfectly grand!" she cried. "But what a chump you are for going at all-when you could marry Lenorry!"

That was Kathleen's point of view, and it must have coincided somewhat with Mr. Anderson's.

"Kathleen, you wouldn't have me be a slacker?" asked Dorn, gently.

"No. But we let Jim go," was her argument.

Dorn kissed her, then turned to Lenore. "Let's go out to the fields."

* * *

It was not a long walk to the alfalfa, but by the time she got there Lenore's impending woe was as if it had never been. Dorn seemed strangely gay and unusually demonstrative; apparently he forgot the war-cloud in the joy of the hour. That they were walking in the open seemed not to matter to him.

"Kurt, some one will see you," Lenore remonstrated.

"You're more beautiful than ever to-day," he said, by way of answer, and tried to block her way.

Lenore dodged and ran. She was fleet, and eluded him down the lane, across the cut field, to a huge square stack of baled alfalfa. But he caught her just as she got behind its welcome covert. Lenore was far less afraid of him than of laughing eyes. Breathless, she backed up against the stack.

"You're-a-cannibal!" she panted. But she did not make much resistance.

"You're-a goddess!" he replied.

"Me!… Of what?"

"Why, of 'Many Waters'!… Goddess of wheat!… The sweet, waving wheat, rich and golden-the very spirit of life!"

"If anybody sees you-mauling me-this way-I'll not seem a goddess to him.… My hair is down-my waist-Oh, Kurt!"

Yet it did not very much matter how she looked or what happened. Beyond all was the assurance of her dearness to him. Suddenly she darted away from him again. Her heart swelled, her spirit soared, her feet were buoyant and swift. She ran into the uncut alfalfa. It was thick and high, tangling round her feet. Here her progress was retarded. Dorn caught up with her. His strong hands on her shoulders felt masterful, and the sweet terror they inspired made her struggle to get away.

"You shall-not-hold me!" she cried.

"But I will. You must be taught-not to run," he said, and wrapped her tight

ly in his arms.

"Now surrender your kisses meekly!"

"I-surrender!… But, Kurt, someone will see… Dear, we'll go back-or-somewhere-"

"Who can see us here but the birds?" he said, and the strong hands held her fast. "You will kiss me-enough-right now-even if the whole world-looked on!" he said, ringingly. "Lenore, my soul!… Lenore, I love you!"

He would not be denied. And if she had any desire to deny him it was lost in the moment. She clasped his neck and gave him kiss for kiss.

But her surrender made him think of her. She felt his effort to let her go.

Lenore's heart felt too big for her breast. It hurt. She clung to his hand and they walked on across the field and across a brook, up the slope to one of Lenore's favorite seats. And there she wanted to rest. She smoothed her hair and brushed her dress, aware of how he watched her, with his heart in his eyes.

Had there ever in all the years of the life of the earth been so perfect a day? How dazzling the sun! What heavenly blue the sky! And all beneath so gold, so green! A lark caroled over Lenore's head and a quail whistled in the brush below. The brook babbled and gurgled and murmured along, happy under the open sky. And a soft breeze brought the low roar of the harvest fields and the scent of wheat and dust and straw.

Life seemed so stingingly full, so poignant, so immeasurably worth living, so blessed with beauty and richness and fruitfulness.

"Lenore, your eyes are windows-and I can see into your soul. I can read-and first I'm uplifted and then I'm sad."

It was he who talked and she who listened. This glorious day would be her strength when the-Ah! but she would not complete a single bitter thought.

She led him away, up the slope, across the barley-field, now cut and harvested, to the great, swelling golden spaces of wheat. Far below, the engines and harvesters were humming. Here the wheat waved and rustled in the wind. It was as high as Lenore's head.

"It's fine wheat," observed Dorn. "But the wheat of my desert hills was richer, more golden, and higher than this."

"No regrets to-day!" murmured Lenore, leaning to him.

There was magic in those words-the same enchantment that made the hours fly. She led him, at will, here and there along the rustling-bordered lanes. From afar they watched the busy harvest scene, with eyes that lingered long on a great, glittering combine with its thirty-two horses plodding along.

"I can drive them. Thirty-two horses!" she asserted, proudly.

"No!"

"Yes. Will you come? I will show you."

"It is a temptation," he said, with a sigh. "But there are eyes there. They would break the spell."

"Who's talking about eyes now?" she cried.

They spent the remainder of that day on the windy wheat-slope, high up, alone, with the beauty and richness of "Many Waters" beneath them. And when the sun sent its last ruddy and gold rays over the western hills, and the weary harvesters plodded homeward, Lenore still lingered, loath to break the spell. For on the way home, she divined, he would tell her he was soon to leave.

Sunset and evening star! Their beauty and serenity pervaded Lenore's soul. Surely there was a life somewhere else, beyond in that infinite space. And the defeat of earthly dreams was endurable.

They walked back down the wheat lanes hand in hand, as dusk shadowed the valley; and when they reached the house he told her gently that he must go.

"But-you will stay to-night?" she whispered.

"No. It's all arranged," he replied, thickly. "They're to drive me over-my train's due at eight.… I've kept it-till the last few minutes."

They went in together.

"We're too late for dinner," said Lenore, but she was not thinking of that, and she paused with head bent. "I-I want to say good-by to you-here." She pointed to the dim, curtained entrance of the living-room.

"I'd like that, too," he replied. "I'll go up and get my bag. Wait."

Lenore slowly stepped to that shadowed spot beyond the curtains where she had told her love to Dorn; and there she stood, praying and fighting for strength to let him go, for power to conceal her pain. The one great thing she could do was to show him that she would not stand in the way of his duty to himself. She realized then that if he had told her sooner, if he were going to remain one more hour at "Many Waters," she would break down and beseech him not to leave her.

She saw him come down-stairs with his small hand-bag, which he set down. His face was white. His eyes burned. But her woman's love made her divine that this was not a shock to his soul, as it was to hers, but stimulation-a man's strange spiritual accounting to his fellow-men.

He went first into the dining-room, and Lenore heard her mother's and sisters' voices in reply to his. Presently he came out to enter her father's study. Lenore listened, but heard no sound there. Outside, a motor-car creaked and hummed by the window, to stop by the side porch. Then the door of her father's study opened and closed, and Dorn came to where she was standing.

Lenore did precisely as she had done a few nights before, when she had changed the world for him. But, following her kiss, there was a terrible instant when, with her arms around his neck, she went blind at the realization of loss. She held to him with a savage intensity of possession. It was like giving up life. She knew then, as never before, that she had the power to keep him at her side. But a thought saved her from exerting it-the thought that she could not make him less than other men-and so she conquered.

"Lenore, I want you to think always-how you loved me," he said.

"Loved you? Oh, my boy! It seems your lot has been hard. You've toiled-you've lost all-and now…"

"Listen," he interrupted, and she had never heard his voice like that. "The thousands of boys who go to fight regard it a duty. For our country!… I had that, but more.… My father was German… and he was a traitor. The horror for me is that I hate what is German in me.… I will have to kill that. But you've helped me.… I know I'm American. I'll do my duty, whatever it is. I would have gone to war only a beast with my soul killed before I ever got there.… With no hope-no possibility of return!… But you love me!… Can't you see-how great the difference?"

Lenore understood and felt it in his happiness. "Yes, Kurt, I know.… Thank God, I've helped you.… I want you to go. I'll pray always. I believe you will come back to me.… Life could not be so utterly cruel…" She broke off.

"Life can't rob me now-nor death," he cried, in exaltation. "I have your love. Your face will always be with me-as now-lovely and brave!… Not a tear!… And only that sweet smile like an angel's!… Oh, Lenore, what a girl you are!"

"Say good-by-and go," she faltered. Another moment would see her weaken.

"Yes, I must hurry." His voice was a whisper-almost gone. He drew a deep breath. "Lenore-my promised wife-my star for all the black nights-God bless you-keep you!… Good-by!"

She spent all her strength in her embrace, all her soul in the passion of her farewell kiss. Then she stood alone, tottering, sinking. The swift steps, now heavy and uneven, passed out of the hall-the door closed-the motor-car creaked and rolled away-the droning hum ceased.

For a moment of despairing shock, before the storm broke, Lenore blindly wavered there, unable to move from the spot that had seen the beginning and the end of her brief hour of love. Then she summoned strength to drag herself to her room, to lock her door.

Alone! In the merciful darkness and silence and loneliness!… She need not lie nor play false nor fool herself here. She had let him go! Inconceivable and monstrous truth! For what?… It was not now with her, that deceiving spirit which had made her brave. But she was a woman. She fell upon her knees beside her bed, shuddering.

That moment was the beginning of her sacrifice, the sacrifice she shared in common now with thousands of other women. Before she had pitied; now she suffered. And all that was sweet, loving, noble, and motherly-all that was womanly-rose to meet the stretch of gray future, with its endless suspense and torturing fear, its face of courage for the light of day, its despair for the lonely night, and its vague faith in the lessons of life, its possible and sustaining and eternal hope of God.

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