A Shameful Affair
Mildred Orme, seated in the snuggest corner of the big front porch of the Kraummer farmhouse, was as content as a girl need hope to be.
This was no such farm as one reads about in humorous fiction. Here were swelling acres where the undulating wheat gleamed in the sun like a golden sea. For silver there was the Meramee – or, better, it was pure crystal, for here and there one might look clean through it down to where the pebbles lay like green and yellow gems. Along the river’s edge trees were growing to the very water, and in it, sweeping it when they were willows.
The house itself was big and broad, as country houses should be. The master was big and broad, too. The mistress was small and thin, and it was always she who went out at noon to pull the great clanging bell that called the farmhands in to dinner.
From her agreeable corner where she lounged with her Browning or her Ibsen, Mildred watched the woman do this every day. Yet when the clumsy farmhands all came tramping up the steps and crossed the porch in going to their meal that was served within, she never looked at them. Why should she? Farmhands are not so very nice to look at, and she was nothing of an anthropologist. But once when the half dozen men came along, a paper which she had laid carelessly upon the railing was blown across their path. One of them picked it up, and when he had mounted the steps restored it to her. He was young, and brown, of course, as the sun had made him. He had nice blue eyes. His fair hair was dishevelled. His shoulders were broad and square and his limbs strong and clean. A not unpicturesque figure in the rough attire that bared his throat to view and gave perfect freedom to his every motion.
Mildred did not make these several observations in the half second that she looked at him in courteous acknowledgment. It took her as many days to note them all. For she signaled him out each time that he passed her, meaning to give him a condescending little smile, as she knew how. But he never looked at her. To be sure, clever young women of twenty, who are handsome, besides, who have refused their half dozen offers and are settling down to the conviction that life is a tedious affair, are not going to care a straw whether farmhands look at them or not. And Mildred did not care, and the thing would not have occupied her a moment if Satan had not intervened, in offering the employment which natural conditions had failed to supply. It was summer time; she was idle; she was piqued, and that was the beginning of the shameful affair.
“Who are these men, Mrs. Kraummer, that work for you? Where do you pick them up?”
“Oh, ve picks ‘em up everyvere. Some is neighbors, some is tramps, and so.”
“And that broad-shouldered young fellow – is he a neighbor? The one who handed me my paper the other day – you remember?”
“Gott, no! You might yust as say he vas a tramp. Aber he vorks like a stem ingine.”
“Well, he’s an extremely disagreeable-looking man. I should think you’d be afraid to have him about, not knowing him.”
“Vat you vant to be ‘fraid for?” laughed the little woman. “He don’t talk no more un ven he vas deef und dumb. I didn’t t’ought you vas sooch a baby.”
“But, Mrs. Kraummer, I don’t want you to think I’m a baby, as you say – a coward, as you mean. Ask the man if he will drive me to church to-morrow. You see, I’m not so very much afraid of him,” she added with a smile.
The answer which this unmannerly farmhand returned to Mildred’s request was simply a refusal. He could not drive her to church because he was going fishing.
“Aber,” offered good Mrs. Kraummer, “Hans Platzfeldt will drive you to church, oder vereever you vants. He vas a goot boy vat you can trust, dat Hans.”
“Oh, thank him very much. But I find I have so many letters to write to-morrow, and it promises to be hot, too. I shan’t care to go to church after all.”
She could have cried for vexation. Snubbed by a farmhand! a tramp perhaps. She, Mildred Orme, who ought really to have been with the rest of the family at Narragansett – who had come to seek in this retired spot the repose that would enable her to follow exalted lines of thought. She marveled at the problematic nature of farmhands.
After sending her the uncivil message already recorded, and as he passed beneath the porch where she sat, he did look at her finally, in a way to make her positively gasp at the sudden effrontery of the man.
But the inexplicable look stayed with her. She could not banish it.
It was not so very hot after all, the next day, when Mildred walked down the long narrow footpath that led through the bending wheat in midsummer-time knows that sound.
In the woods it was sweet and solemn and cool. And there beside the river was the wretch who had annoyed her, first, with his indifference, then with the sudden boldness of his glance.
“Are you fishing?” she asked politely and with kindly dignity, which she supposed would define her position toward him. The inquiry lacked not pertinence, seeing that he sat motionless, with a pole in his hand and his eyes fixed on a cork that bobbed aimlessly on the water.
“Yes, madam,” was his brief reply.
“It won’t disturb you if I stand here a moment, to see what success you will have?”
She stood very still, holding tight to the book she had brought with her. Her straw hat had slipped disreputably to one side, over the wavy bronze-brown bang that half covered her forehead. Her cheeks were ripe with color that the sun had coaxed there; so were her lips.
All the other farmhands had gone forth in Sunday attire. Perhaps this one had none better than these working clothes that he wore. A feminine commiseration swept her at the thought. He spoke never a word. She wondered how many hours he could sit there, so patiently waiting for fish to come to his hook. For her part, the situation began to pall, and she wanted to change it at last.
“Let me try a moment, please? I have an idea – “
“The man is surely an idiot, with his monosyllables,” she commented inwardly. But she remembered that monosyllables belong to a boor’s equipment.
She laid her book carefully down and took the pole gingerly that he came to place in her hands. Then it was his turn to stand back and look respectfully and silently on at the absorbing performance.
“Oh!” cried the girl, suddenly, seized with excitement upon seeing the line dragged deep in the water.
“Wait, wait! Not yet.”
He sprang to her side. With his eyes eagerly fastened on the tense line, he grasped the pole to prevent her drawing it, as her intention seemed to be. That is, he meant to grasp the pole, but instead, his brown hand came down upon Mildred’s white one. He started violently at finding himself so close to a bronze-brown tangle that almost swept his chin – to a hot cheek only a few inches away from his shoulder, to a pair of young, dark eyes that gleamed for an instant unconscious things into his own.
Then, why ever it happened, or how ever it happened, his arms were holding Mildred and he kissed her lips. She did not know if it was ten times or only once.
She looked around – her face milk-white – to see him disappear with rapid strides through the path that had brought her there. Then she was alone.
Only the birds had seen, and she could count on their discretion. She was not wildly indignant, as many would have been. Shame stunned her. But through it she gropingly wondered if she should tell the Kraummers that her chaste lips had been rifled of their innocence. Publish her own confusion? No! Once in her room she would give calm thought to the situation, and determine then how to act. The secret must remain her own: a hateful burden to bear alone until she could forget it.
And because she feared not to forget it, Mildred wept that night. All day long a hideous truth had been thrusting itself upon her that made her ask herself if she could be mad. She feared it. Else why was that kiss the most delicious thing she had known in her twenty years of life? The sting of it had never left her lips since it was pressed into them. The sweet trouble of it banished sleep from her pillow.
But Mildred would not bend the outward conditions of her life to serve any shameful whim that chanced to visit her soul, like an ugly dream. She would avoid nothing. She would go and come like always.
In the morning she found in her chair upon the porch the book she had left by the river. A fresh indignity! But she came and went as she intended to, and sat as usual upon the porch amid her familiar surroundings. When the Offender passed by her she knew it, though her eyes were never lifted. Are there only sight and sound to tell such things? She discerned it by a wave that swept her with confusion and she knew not what besides.
She watched him furtively, one day, when he talked with Farmer Kraummer out in the open. When he walked away she remained like one who has drunk much wine. Then unhesitatingly she turned and began her preparations to leave the Kraummer farmhouse.
When the afternoon was far spent they brought letters to her. One of them read like this:
“My Mildred, deary! I am only now at Narragansett, and so broke up not to find you. So you are down at that Kraummer farm, on the Iron Mountain. Well! What do you think of that delicious crank, Fred Evelyn? For a man must be a crank who does such things. Only fancy! Last year he chose to drive an engine back and forth across the plains. This year he tills the soil with laborers. Next year it will be something else as insane – because he likes to live more lives than one kind, and other Quixotic reasons. We are great chums. He writes me he’s grown as strong as an ox. But he hasn’t mentioned that you are there. I know you don’t get on with him, for he isn’t a bit intellectual – detests Ibsen and abuses Tolstoi. He doesn’t read ‘in books’ – says they are spectacles for the short-sighted to look at life through. Don’t snub him, dear, or be too hard on him; he has a heart of gold, if he is the first crank in America.”
Mildred tried to think – to feel the intelligence which this letter brought to her would take somewhat of the sting from the shame that tortured her. But it did not. She knew that it could not.
In the gathering twilight she walked again through the wheat that was heavy and fragrant with dew. The path was very long and very narrow. When she was midway she saw the Offender coming toward her. What could she do? Turn and run, as a little child might? Spring into the wheat, as some frightened four-footed creature would? There was nothing but to pass him with the dignity which the occasion clearly demanded.
But he did not let her pass. He stood squarely in the pathway before her, hat in hand, a perturbed look upon his face.
“Miss Orme,” he said, “I have wanted to say to you, every hour of the past week, that I am the most consummate hound that walks the earth.”
She made no protest. Her whole bearing seemed to indicate that her opinion coincided with his own.
“If you have a father, or brother, or any one, in short, to whom you may say such things –“
“I think you aggravate the offense, sir, by speaking of it. I shall ask you never to mention it again. I want to forget that it ever happened. Will you kindly let me by.”
“Oh,” he ventured eagerly, “you want to forget it! Then, maybe, since you are willing to forget, you will be generous enough to forgive the offender some day?”
“Some day,” she repeated, almost inaudibly, looking seemingly through him, but not at him – “some day – perhaps; when I shall have forgiven myself.”
He stood motionless, watching her slim, straight figure lessening by degrees as she walked slowly away from him. He was wondering what she meant. Then a sudden, quick wave when he guessed what it might be.